Happiness For Others Comes From Contentment With Yourself

Why do we have such a hard time being happy for others? It is something I have struggled with over the years, and I recognize much of my resentment towards others’ success has been a result of my own insecurities.

Back when we were really floundering, my wife and I were friends with several couples who made much more money than us. They lived in huge houses in the best neighborhood in town, drove nice cars, and took luxurious vacations. We had little in common, except for the church group the moms were members of – MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers).

My wife and I often confided to each other that we always felt a little out of place at Christmas parties and other social events hosted by these wealthy couples. My “out of touch” feelings began to fester, and soon I was downright jealous. Why couldn’t I land a great job and earn as much money as them? Why couldn’t we afford a bigger house, and a nicer car?

Fortunately, as part of my financial turnaround, I finally came to terms with what I was feeling. Turns out I wasn’t so much jealous of the “Joneses” as I was unhappy with my own situation. My resentment for others’ success was born from my own lack of success, and I ultimately only had myself to blame.

There was another angle to this I had not considered before this time of reflection. What if those couples were up to their eyeballs in debt? They probably had a huge mortgage payment, two car payments and credit card debt higher than my annual income. After all, outward appearances can be deceiving. Is that really what I was after? Or would I be more content with a modest home, paid-for cars, and the freedom that comes from not carrying any debt. The choice was obvious.

It was at this point that I went through sort of an early mid-life crisis. Up to that point I had been fast-tracking the career ladder, having started literally on the bottom rung and made my way to middle management. Of course, the promotions often meant more headaches, more travel and not much more money. I came to a point in my life where I would gladly give up the late nights, Saturday mornings and two week cross-country trips for more time with my wife and kids.

Sure, we would probably not make as much money as those “rich” friends of ours, but we would be wealthy in other ways. So in March of 2004 we relocated, left the financial industry and found more meaningful work. Now, I make significantly more in a year than I did in those days, thanks to my new career and my side hustles. Aside from a few nice things we enjoy, we still live a modest lifestyle by most standards.

I find it much easier to be happier for others now, if they are truly happy. If I discover they are unhappy with their inflated lifestyles, and are merely working for the trappings of the rich and famous, then I feel a little sorry for them. I hope over time they will break free from the grips of materialism so that they can discover what is really meaningful to them. Maybe it is more time with their family, or more time to volunteer to a cause they believe in, or maybe just more time out on a boat fishing. Whatever it is, I hope they find it so I can truly be happy for them.


  1. One thing I find about having friends who are substantially richer or poorer than you (really I mean willingness to spend, which as you know isn’t that correlated with income) is that it affects what you do together for fun.

    When I hang out with graduate students and others who make fairly little, we usually cook dinner together and play board games, go walking or biking or out for coffee.

    But when I visited some friends in Silicon Valley, get-togethers involved going out to expensive restaurants (not saving the leftovers!), $7 gellato, movies/shows, and the like.

    People who are more willing to spend may have trouble finding common ground with those in a different financial situation. It’s a problem I’ve had issues with all my life and continue to now.

    It was very interesting to hear how you’ve dealt with it, but I’m a bit curious if you had difficulty finding common ground in terms of things to do together due to differing willingness to spend.

  2. I just went through this with family. Watched a close family member make millions and felt ridiculously jealous — until it all fell apart and crumbled before his eyes. Then I felt very ashamed of myself that I spent so much time and energy being jealous, when really I should have been treating him the same as always. I was there for him in the aftermath, but it was a difficult day when I sat across from him and apologized for being so jealous when I should have been happy for him instead.

  3. This is interesting because I feel this way too, but it has nothing to do with my own situation.

    It has to do more with whether or not I like the other person/people. If I like someone, then it’s very easy for me to feel good about they’re situation, regardless of my own.

    Now, if I dislike them on a personal level…then I can’t stand that they’re doing “better” than me.

    Probably something I should look to improve on…

  4. Just like you said in the About sections, the grass may be greener on the other side but the water bill is probably higher too. You were envied of the lifestyles and money your friends have. For me, at this stage right now, I envy my college mate sometimes like some of them cruise the classes with perfect grade so easily while I couldn’t do. I know this is a kind of self-sabotage but sometimes you can’t help but blaming the circumstances you are in. I’m improving this area of my life right now because I really don’t want to become a bitter and unpleasant person for my own sake and for the sake of all of the people around me. There is a proverb that says enough is when you know that it’s enough. There is no limit for enough- a person with 100 billion dollars still feel poor and want 101 billion if he doesn’t know that it’s enough.

  5. Great article! As someone who does a lot of traveling (paid for, mind you, not charged), I love to share my travel photos with family and friends. I have been feeling more and more that they are no longer interested in seeing them, so I quit sharing.

    I felt as if maybe I was bragging, but now wonder if these people aren’t feeling insecure about their own situations. It just makes me feel bad that I can’t share my experiences with my friends for fear of making them feel bad.

  6. Frugal Dad – Thanks for sharing. If one is happy with themselves, it’s much easier to be happy for others. It really starts with yourself.

    In my mid-40’s, I’m retired and living off my interest income. I am truly very happy and have used my spare time to start my own website with my buddy RB. However, when I was working, there would always be a hint of jealousy for those who made more.

    It’s also a good idea to associate with a variety of different people so as to not always be trapped in a way of thinking. Europeans are great in this example with most ALL speaking 2 languages, and many who speak 3. Americans on the other hand, not so much.

    You have the best job in the world now, and that is to write a blog and make money. If only I was internet literate 10 years ago… but it’s never too late to live the dream. You’re living the dream! 🙂

    Best, Shogun

  7. The source of envy/jealousy is truly within. If one is living a life they enjoy, has created a life they want (and that does not necessarily include lots of money and stuff), one is joyful for the success of others.

    When you are unhappy with your own life, you can often end up feeling “less than” and envious. The only way to deal with it is to focus on creating the life you want and being realistic about it. (Many people today are truly unaware of the reality that no, anyone cannot make millions and live like those you see on TV and in the media. Illusions, folks. Smoke and mirrors and lots of debt!)

    That said, no matter how personally content, it is often hard to not question the success of others, particularly as someone pointed out, we do not like them or they are not nice, genuine or “good” people (hate labels, but for lack of another way to describe it)…by ours or anyone else’s standards.

    Let’s be honest. There are people who have made money off the pain of others and/or caused pain for others to make their money (Madoff et al, for example) and there are people who use their material wealth/resources inappropriately or as a way to bludgeon others into believing they are “better” than others.

    Those types…even the most self-confident among us can have issues with.

    In the workplace, this is also difficult as we often see people with less skill or experience promoted while others are not. It’s even worse when we know that some of those promoted have put fellow staffers, the companies and even customers in jeopardy doing things over the years, but have not been caught. Sometimes people even get away with outright illegal stuff (which actuallly wins them favor in some companies) or are actually valued on how well they can skirt the law, etc.

    Yes, it’s not easy to be happy for everyone. Nor, frankly should we be. Some people do not, in fact, “deserve” good stuff. They have not worked for it or otherwise earned it. But that’s life. “Fair” does not exist. If it did, really good teachers would be making hundreds of thousands of dollars while thieving Wall Street types and bankers would be in jail.

    But it’s best to just keep focused on your own life plan. Comparison is useless. And if it makes you feel any better, if you got inside the lives of many of the “haves” you’d be shocked at what you saw. Some of the most unhappy people we’ve ever met have lots of money but are just miserable. Always complaining, always worried that someone is trying to “get” their money. Ugh.

    As for how money affects sharing time with others, a couple of things. One, it depends on your relationship with people, how close you are and how long you’ve known them. We have friends we’ve known for decades who are now very, very well off. They are the same people and they act no differently. They are sensitive to the concerns about spending and their way is to adapt and, at times, to also simply give gifts of travel, etc.

    Money should never be an issue between real friends. Yes, it does require compromises on both parts, but it can be done.

    The real issue with money spending is with casual acquaintances or people with whom you are developing a friendship.

    One should never feel bad about living within their means. We grew up in an area where people had what is referred to as “old” money. (And some new money as well.) These folks were among the most cost-conscious and frugal. They felt it showed a lack of respect for both yourself and the money to just spend to spend and truly didn’t believe in “showing” their wealth. It was only years later that we realized how truly wealthy some of these folks were. Because they acted no differently than the working folks in the area.

    If you see someone who has achieved a dream you hold, instead of envy or jealousy, use it as motivation and rethink how you’re approaching your own goals. The real pain is acknowledging that often you have not worked hard enough or had a good enough plan. So don’t mope, rework the plan.

  8. This is true. I get jealous of my friends that had there parents pay for undergrad. Most of the people have a significant portion of the tuition paid for or in full. I feel like I am the only one with outrageous student loans. Most of my friends parents were much more well off than my parents but I happened to be smart. I guess my parents didnt want to see my smarts go to waste and sent me to a school they could not afford.

  9. Totally agree with the post. It’s easy to be jealous of what others have but you should always compare the entire picture and not just the tangible things.

    I visited a college friend out of town this past weekend and was instantly envious of her amazing furniture. At dinner that night we started talking finance and she told me that her mom purchased the furniture (because her credit was too poor to get financing). She was supposed to pay her mom back on monthly installments as she could afford it but had already skipped most payments due to her other bills. Her mom was not happy. After the conversation my trusty college futon was looking a lot better than $1800 worth of debt and ruining relationships with family.

  10. I have lived on “both sides of the tracks.” I struggled as a single parent for many years after a nasty divorce. As with most, I lived paycheck to paycheck. I remember looking at others in the grocery store, hoping for the day when I could buy whatever I wanted & did not have to use a calculator to make sure I stayed on my $25/week food budget. Fastfoward 20’some years, I have educated myself (am a RN, currently working) & I have married a wonderful man who served his country for many years & has subsequently retired. He was frugal thru his life which has allowed us to live in a gated community on a golf course. We are not hear because we compromised ourselves or because someone handed us $$. We are able to live this way because of years of struggling as well as prudent & provident choices.

    Just yesterday, a man made a comment regarding the “community” we live in, “yeah, those people who live in ******, they don’t know what life is really like”… Well, I beg to differ, please don’t assume that others who appear to have more than you don’t understand your situation or have not a clue about life. I have been there, done that…and I’m STILL using my calculator at the grocery store & clipping coupons…I troll every available blog or website to learn more ahout managing our money & strive to be a good steward for what we have been blessed with….

  11. Interesting post! When I was 16, I travelled to a nearby city with my Aunt. As we drove by huge house after huge house, I said (enviously), “They must be so rich!”
    My aunt said, “More likely they are drowning in debt. It may look like a rich life on the outside but you can’t see how they’re really living. Never forget that.”

    And I haven’t!

  12. Ugh, I’m horrible with this… Both the being jealous end and the seemingly one on the receiving end.

    Most people who know us understand our car thing. Our house is bare bones. We don’t spend a ton of money on anything else. So we splurge on our cars… Which sometimes gives other people the wrong impression. All they see is us coming and going, and our cars. It’s not fun being treated like crap because some insecure jerk can’t keep their envy to himself. (And it’s mostly people we don’t know or don’t care about… Who seem to think their opinion does matter.)

    I hate feeling envious, so I try to imagine other people having huge amounts of debt to finance the lifestyle they portray. I don’t think it’s always the case, but more often than not it is… And makes me feel a bit better. Sadly, there isn’t much we can do on the other front but keep showing most people we aren’t snobs because of the cars we have. It’s funny how many times we hear about S2000 owners being dicks! We’re definitely not like that… She’s just our Honda. 🙂

  13. I agree that contentment is the best way to overcome feelings of jealousy but I wish people would stop saying “they are probably up to their eyeballs in debt” of those who appear to have more than them.
    Those people may well just have worked hard and made sensible choices in order to get where they are. I think when you are truly content you will not need to try and disparage others in order to make yourself feel better about your own choices.

  14. Here here!
    It’s so refreshing to read another opinion so aligned with my own.
    People these days are so engrossed in their own egos – as though the clothes they wear or the car they drive somehow make them a better person! How sad they must feel to rely on these false outer validations.
    I pity those ego-driven souls and hope they one day come to the realization that it’s what’s INSIDE them that counts.
    Live Life Happy!!

  15. First be happy with yourself.
    And learn to be truly yourself.
    Live simply, and contentment will follow.

    It would be a boring world if everyone were exactly alike – so learn to enjoy the differences, but be true to yourself and your values.

  16. What Looby said at comment #13. I see it a lot in personal finance blogs, and I don’t understand it. Knocking other people down to prop your own ego doesn’t hide the fact that you’re still jealous.

  17. Another great article Frugal Dad. I’m a fan! Though I come from the Philippines and some articles don’t pertain to our situation here, I still enjoy reading your posts.
    I just want to share this nugget I read from Ms. Ellen Goodman….”Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car, and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it”. Sadly, a lot of people live that way (not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, that just saddens me). Then you factor in being jealous of the people you think are way better than you. Uh-oh, recipe for depression!
    So, let’s all break free from materialism and apply this principle in our lives…that SATISFACTION is not getting what you want, but wanting what you already have.

  18. Monday I put in my resignation at work. Financially this will change our entire life; it will force us to reduce and reuse. Our hopes is having less money will eliminate the temptations and reponsibility at the same time allow us to live without so many constraints and distractions. Thanks for the inspiration.

  19. I hate it when I go to Christmas parties and look around and see people who are better off than I am. My husband and I went to a Christmas party in Birmingham last year and found that was exactly the case.

  20. Lucy – Looks can be deceiving – and why should it even matter?

    I enjoyed going to a car dealer once in my old work jeans and t-shirt (my usual attire) and having the salesmen rush to the lady in the fancy classy clothes… and then some farther-down-the-line salesman got stuck with me and my farm look…. but the lady in the fancy clothes couldn’t get her credit to qualify for the used car she wanted, and so the salesman lost the deal. My low-on-the-totom pole salesman got my sale – cash for a spanking-new full-sized pickup truck….. 1993

    So…looks are very very deceiving!!!! Learn to not let it bother you!

  21. marci,
    I once had a conversation with a real estate agent who told me a story similar to yours. She was a new, junior agent in the office. Late on Friday afternoon, when everyone was getting ready to go home for the weekend, a family came to the office in an old, beat up minivan. Two parents, four kids, very simply dressed, very unpretentious asking to see some listed houses.

    Since none of the senior agents wanted to deal with this family at the time, this junior agent got “stuck” with them on Friday night. She found out very quickly that they had done alot of their research on their own, they looked at about four or five properties, then put in a contract offer of about $600k on their favorite the very next morning–for cash–which was immediately accepted.