Looking for Happiness In All The Wrong Places

Last week I had the opportunity to be in downtown Atlanta during mid-day rush. I stopped along a bustling business district to grab a cup of coffee and kill some time. Watching the business crowd hustling along the streets from my warm coffee shop window seat I noticed nearly every passerby had one thing in common. I was reminded of the scene in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness where Will Smith’s character is watching stock brokers move about the streets of San Francisco and he says with a touch of envy, “They all looked so damn happy.”  Except in this case, they all looked “so damn miserable.”

Many were feverishly working a Blackberry, pausing only long enough to look up and avoid running into one another. Most of them were dressed sharp, and getting into and out of nice cars–much nicer cars than I am used to seeing in a smaller town. Several people stopped in to grab a cup of coffee, but one man caught my attention. He ordered the coffee after pausing his Bluetooth headset mid-conversation, putting down his laptop bag on an adjacent table, and returning his Blackberry to its holster. Our eyes met and he shook his head, took a deep breath and let out an audible sigh.  I smiled back and asked, “Tough day?”  He replied, “Every day.”  He paid for his coffee, collected his gear and was off and running again.  As I watched him trotting off into the distance I reflected on how it must feel to be in such a hurry all the time. And at what cost.

Before I had kids I used to think that would be me hustling around some large downtown business district. I wanted to do the daily commute, have an office on the 17th floor, and be part of “the grind.” What a difference ten years makes! None of that appeals to me now. I enjoy the slower pace. I look forward to getting home in the afternoon and spending time with my wife and kids. They fulfill me much more than any job could, regardless of the salary.

Attention College Students:  Choose Wisely

When I have the occasion to be around college students I always like to find out what they are majoring in, and why. The responses are pretty typical. The one thing I have discovered in my own surveying of future professionals is that the students interested in lower-paying career fields seem to be the most confident in their choice of major. I can’t remember ever hearing someone say they always wanted to be a teacher because of the money, or that they were interested in the clergy because of the great pension plan. No, people generally select lower-paying career fields because of a genuine passion for the field. They ignore promises of a higher salary to follow their hearts.

When I started school I entered pre-medicine because I did have a genuine interest in helping people, and because doctors made a lot of money. However, I decided after two and a half years that six more years of school (at least) was not for me, financially or otherwise. I left the College of Science and Math and headed over to the Liberal Arts college determined to change my major to education. I wanted to be a high school football coach.  But, it wasn’t long and I left that major as well after deciding there was no money in teaching and coaching at the high school level.  In both cases I allowed money to heavily influence my decision, instead of simply following my heart.

Parents, Guide Your Kids Towards Their Heart’s Desire, Not Towards Higher Salaries

I credit my mom for helping me finally settle down on a business degree with a specialization in information systems. She recognized that I was drifting a bit, and suggested that I look at something like business or computers, because those skills would always be in demand, and offered a wide range of industries to work in. For instance, I could work in the business or technical side of the medical field, and I could coach youth sports in my spare time (something I did for five seasons for my daughter’s soccer team). In other words, I could find fulfillment outside of my full-time employment.

There are a lucky few that enjoy absolute happiness from their jobs, and make good money doing it. Unfortunately, that is not the norm. Most of us get through our 8:00-5:00 jobs to pay the bills and put food on the tables, and that is fine, as long as we find something that fulfills us outside of work. I have several side hustles that keep me going, and above all I enjoy spending remaining free time with my family. I hope to also add more volunteer activities in the near future, but most of those will be a family affair as well.

If you are reading this and relate to the guy in that coffee shop exhaling deeply under the weight of work life, I would encourage you to evaluate why you are doing what you are doing. Is it for the money? Is it to feed your ego? To pay for stuff? If you downsized your lifestyle a bit, could you afford to downsize your work life, too?  Could you spend more time with your family? Catch a few more soccer games? I hate to borrow a line from Mastercard, but those moments really are “priceless.”


  1. It is amazing that something so miserable for so many can be made to look so attractive. One of the great side benefits about being satisfied and fulfilled in your life choices, job, and relationships is that it is much easier to manage your money. If you are living a life where everyday is a “tough day” it becomes very easy to try and buy happiness with things and an expensive lifestyle. If you are happy, it becomes much easier to spend money only on things that you really want.

  2. This post really struck a chord in my heart when I read it. I am in college right now, and have been having serious doubts about my major (which I chose because I thought I could make good money), and lately I have really been feeling convicted that I have been spending too much time trying to “get there”, and not enough time enjoying where I am. 🙁

  3. So true! My first degree I did out of obligation. I felt it was the “right path” given my parent’s influence. Being only 18 at the time, it’s super hard to know what to study. My second degree was the right path. Indeed, going back to school in my late 20s and funding a second degree is an expensive financial lesson. Albeit, I am so happy I did it.

  4. i never cease to be amazed by the glamour with which that lifestyle is portrayed by the american media. I guess they need to get people to want to live that way! Somehow the idea of being constantly hurried, wildly concerned about what everyone thinks of your outfit, deeply invested in owning a European-make automobile is seen as desirable- no, venerable! I know lots of people who work in “the city”, 80 hours a week at a job that they don’t enjoy so that they can spend their weekends eating tapas and browsing the racks at JCrew.

  5. Yep, it all looks different in ten years. Who knows, in a little over ten years you could have two rebellious teenagers on your hands and be going through a divorce. Though those moments seem priceless, all it takes is one good slip-up to wipe it all away.

  6. I am going through several of these issues right now.
    1. I was laid off from a job that I loved. I worked 60 hours a week and was very fulfilled. Now I am working a job which bores me to tears but pays well and is very secure. I am having to find things outside of work to make me happy.
    2. My son is in his 2nd year of college. I don’t really agree with his choice of degree or his plans (he is a sports mgmt major…wants to go to law school and become an agent). I am so afraid that he will not make it in the business and have wasted 7-8 years on schooling. But who am I to step on his dreams? Maybe I don’t have enough faith in him.
    Thanks for such a great blog!

  7. I like the part in the article about trying to find passion in college. Some had it, I didn’t. I had a huge wake up call when I was about to change my major for the sixth time. Enough was enough. I had to find something I couldn’t quit. So I joined the Army National Guard. They paid me and gave me a job skill. 8 years later, I’m still doing using the skills I learned in the NG.

  8. Great advice. Being a recent grad myself I chose to go after a major that has less pay but hopefully can allow me to have a more balanced work/life thing going. Some people think of that as a bad attitude, in some cases my parents. It’s not that I don’t respect the past and people who really want to grind. I just want to be able to enjoy my life, and times with friends, family, my own personal hobbies and relaxation. It’s difficult because in these times and standard of livings, it is sometimes difficult to achieve that, which is why so many people are unhappy.


  9. where was this post 5 years ago? I still regret my Dad talking me out of that history degree… although he has a very valid point of the limit of museum curators in the world. I might be able to volenteer or something.

  10. Snap! Over the years, I have figured out that I’m happier and healthier when working less and being less stressed out. However, there are some steps I have taken to de-stress my normal working life. I cut out take-away coffee for two reasons (1) the cost, and (2) having to wait in-line for ages and ages for something I don’t really need actually added to my stress.

    Amazing when we step back and wonder what we’re actually doing it all for.

  11. I have downsized my lifestyle about as low on the hog as it can go 🙂 And because of that, and no debt (no mortgage either) I am able to scale back my work hours to just 32/week – 4 days…3 if I want time off. I basically work for the free health insurance and don’t worry about the money aspect of the thing. It’s a job that fits me, my family, and my lifestyle, and is not boring 🙂

    I have the time to spend with my family, especially my grandkids, like sewing merit badges on the granddaughter’s church caravan sash last night, and having them help me in the garden, and even with the housework. As long as it’s something new for them, they seem happy even stacking veggie cans in the cupboard 🙂
    I can take off for the grandkids’ school functions and chaperone on the field trips, and all that kind of good stuff 🙂

    The time with family is sooooo much more important than having extra money to blow. And in the process, my kids and grandkids are learning important lessons about frugality, the pleasures of living simply, and how great it is to be debt free 🙂 That’s the legacy I hope to leave to them – by example.

  12. You know, this is really an interesting topic for me because I know a few teachers who are upset with their career choice simply because of money. They love teaching, but can easily see themselves doing something else if it helps pay the bills a little more effectively. Ultimately, I think it comes down to finding a balance between basic budgeting and living within your means. I think if you can find that balance and a job you enjoy, you can have your cake and eat it too.

    See where you are headed financially at http://www.buildmybudget.com

  13. I agree 100%. A welcome post in a blogosphere filled with stories about gazelle-like intensity and 12 tips to multitask your way to a heart attack. I live in a cool, laid-back city, a million miles away from the turbocharged stock broker lifestyle where people dress up for work & sleep with their Blackberries and Blutetooths. Honestly, I’d rather have a cheeseburger, drink a beer, spend the evening watching stand-up comedy, and sleep in an extra hour or three, than the non-stop work and stresses which comes along with a $250K/year salary.

    Having said that, somebody needs to do it. Or perhaps more accurately, a lot of people are willing to do it. Over the past 7-8 years, I’ve seen a decrease in work ethic in America. That’s not happening in a lot of other places on the planet (e.g. China) where they work 70 hour, 6 day weeks, for peanut shells compared to what we make. America is for the most part “fat & happy”, content and not as hungry for success as many other places, but fortunately we have a secret weapon on a scale unequaled elsewhere on the planet: immigration, which continuously pumps new blood into our workforce.

    Also (a somewhat tangential point), probably only the wealthiest 5% of the world can really afford to “follow their heart” when it comes to work. Most of our brothers & sisters on the planet are willing to do whatever they can do to put food on the table. You can look at even our country, where there are a large number of jobs which all of use refuse to do and are instead sent overseas. We are extraordinarily fortunate & blessed to be able to choose work which we enjoy.

  14. I also received a B.S.B.A in Information Systems with a minor in Communication with the outlook of great career opportunities. When I first started at my current organization I was able to select what I wanted and I chose web development. I would go to work each day with a huge smile on my face and could not beleive I was getting paid to play with coding and build web applications. A few years ago my organization was directed to stop developing applications and I then I “drifted” into Project Management. I went ahead full-speed and earned a Professional Project Management(PMP) certification. I have been doing this for almost 4 years now I do not like it. I recently did some self-discovery through reading and taking notes of what I did and did not like about things I had done throughout my life. I finally concluded that I enjoy problem-solving, being creative, and building solutions to everyday problems within the organization. I love to analyze a problem, propose possible solutions, and then act to make the chosen solution viable. I would highly recommend the book, “What Color Is Your Parachute” to help with self analysis of what may be a better fit for you. We spend so much time on where we want to live, how much money we want to earn, what car we should purchase, but so many of us, myself included, have skipped some of the most important aspects of finding a career; what do I do well and what tasks really make me feel appreciated or needed?
    I work with some people that do not care what they do day-to-day, they are only concerned with how much they can make each year. I will say that no matter the situation, I’m grateful to be employed, grateful for obstacles to help me grow as an individual, and grateful that I do have a choice to analyze and determine a next course of action for my own personal endeavor. Knowing thyself is probably the greatest thing you could ever invest in!

  15. My husband and I are physicians. We used to love our jobs, but medicine has changed and most of what doctors do these days is not patient care. So, a few years ago, he came home and announced he wanted to “chuck it all” and travel the country in a converted bus for a year. Of course, I said, “Why can’t you be like a normal husband in a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?” We’re both shrinks, but he’s obviously the better one, as we soon set out with our pets -and no agenda.

    The trip really was life-changing, as it made us realize that at this stage in our lives, the most important thing was having time to spend together. When we got back, I was actually the one who said, “Instead of selling the bus, let’s sell our house so we can live full time in our rig” and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

    We decided we’re rather support each other than our lifestyle.

  16. Interesting that you titled the last section “Parents, Guide Your Kids Towards Their Heart’s Desire…” and the proceeded to “credit” your mom for doing the exact opposite. She guided you toward a degree in something that was practical, not your life’s passion. I believe God gives you the desires of your heart…first He puts them there, and then He fulfills them (if you let Him!) You *assumed* what would happen if you followed your true passion (coaching) instead of stepping out in faith that there was a REASON for your passion. I humbly suggest to you, that if you had truly followed your passion as a career, instead of a part-time hobby, you would be even more fulfilled right now, and not “getting through your 8-5 job.”

    Sometimes you have to “let go, and let God.”

    I followed the smell of money during and after college and wound up in law school…for a year. While I think I would have made a fine attorney, my wallet was in it more than my heart. When I finally figured out that I needed to feed my creative side and my technical side in my employment, I taught myself programming (several languages), and graphic design. Within a year of starting down this path, I was making as much as a 2nd year lawyer.

    Now that I have children, I can still do web development on the side, at home, and make great money, while I also have the freedom and flexibility to homeschool my kids. I really enjoy what I do, and I’m so glad I didn’t “stick it out” through 3 years of law school just because I started down that path.

  17. I’m a secondary education teacher, and it doesn’t matter where in the world you teach it is not well paid. I have recently realised in another 3 years when I am about 50 years of age I will be debt free, no mortgage, no nothing.

    So this has made me think, do I want to then get a better house in a better suburbs and start the debt again. Or do I see this as a great opportunity to have a lower standard of living, look less successful, but have the freedom to take a year off work and maybe do some voluntary work overseas.

    The second option really appeals.

  18. I was basically run off my last job due to a lethal combination of harassment and stress, and I’ve spent the past year on disability at much less than half of my great salary. I was really proud of my job and the salary that I earned, but in the end, all that really mattered was my health, my family, the sky, the birds, the flowers and most importantly, my God! After being home to cook meals for my family, pull out my dusty sewing machine again, grow a vegetable garden, hang the clothes out to dry, talk to my teenaged daughter’s and husband for a complete conversation, I finally felt what it was to relax! I started a very small business selling handmade hats at a local gallery. I went back to school after 28 years at the local community college. And after 5 years in this home I’ve finally met my neighbors and they’re all really nice! This might sound silly to some people reading this but I actually felt like I had stepped off of a treadmill set on the highest setting. It took awhile for my body to adjust but now, although I will soon return to work,I’m going to continue making my hats, cooking meals for enjoyment, and live the scaled back life that I learned to live while I was home.

  19. I’m not sure being happy with your job and minimizing the stress really has much to do with how often you’re at work. I think it’s more about productivity, and being able to set up systems in your life that allow you to be productive with less effort.

    Also, the field also doesn’t have much to do with it. You can hire out or automate a considerable amount of work in any sector.

  20. Interesting post. I actually started out as a liberal arts major in college. I was tempted to go into a major that I thought was interesting, but once I began to see the student loans mount I quickly decided to major in engineering. I struggled in engineering partially because I didn’t really enjoy it and I think my grades reflected that.

    I’ve been to your blog from time to time, but I think this is a blog I should be reading on a more frequent basis.

    Great content!

  21. “In both cases I allowed money to heavily influence my decision, instead of simply following my heart.”

    This is so interesting–I did the exact opposite, and I can’t say it has worked out as well as I’d hoped, either! I’m a social worker. I thought it was exactly what I wanted to do, but it turns out I was a little too idealistic. While the job has its perks, it’s extremely draining and most of the time, I feel frustrated. And you know what they say about social workers’ pay…you’ve gotta love the job! My annual salary didn’t eclipse my grad school student loan balance until two years after I started working.

    This is not to discourage anyone out there from following their dreams–far from it! But be sure if you follow your passion, you think it through. Make sure you can live comfortably on the average salary in your chosen profession, and remember that just because your school says the “average graduate” makes X amount of money, doesn’t guarantee that you will. Plan ahead and talk to others in your field to be sure it’s for you.

  22. So, so true to talk to people who are established in your chosen profession before you jump in. However, I would also add, that professions can change in ways that no one could have forseen.

    When my husband and I started out in our practices 20 years ago, we loved our work. If it had stayed like it was then, that would have been fine, but it hasn’t. I honestly don’t know any docs who would tell their kids to go into medicine or who would do it again, if they could. That’s why so many are leaving the profession now. I’m fortunate in that I’m also a writer, so I have something else to do that I love. It’s always struck me as idiotic that we expect 20ish year old “kids” to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives.