Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

What's enough to make us happy?

Experts say happiness is often derived by a combination of good health, financial wellbeing, and solid relationships with family and friends. But are we forgetting to take stock of whether we have enough of these things? asks James Heskett

Published: May 14, 2024 12:27:52 PM IST
Updated: May 14, 2024 05:59:51 PM IST

What's enough to make us happy?Image: Shutterstock

Happiness, an elusive condition we all want to experience, is a popular topic. It’s a complex subject. It may or may not require everything from good health to sufficient wealth to good relationships in varying degrees for each of us. The result is measured in terms of outcomes that may be more or less than we expected, just as customer satisfaction is measured in terms of whether our expectations were met or exceeded.

But how many of us take time out periodically to map out our changing expectations for our physical and mental wellbeing and the things that determine them—our relationships with family and friends, our careers, our financial wealth, our physical and spiritual exercise and diet?

The notion is that if we set goals for “enough,” we’ll be more conscious of meeting them and more likely to do so. Success in meeting them brings a sense of wellbeing that contributes to one’s happiness. It’s not necessarily a signal that it’s time to retire; it’s a self-generated milestone that may enable us to branch off into new, interesting directions with new goals, satisfied that our basic goals have been met.

Those of us who fail to have this conversation with ourselves run the risk of chasing and acquiring things that are never enough.

These matters are highly personal. I like to think that how we make decisions on these matters determines, as the old saying goes, “whether we can live with ourselves or not.” That’s not a bad yardstick for decision-making in the happiness business. Most of us would probably agree that “what’s enough” should be a bit of a stretch but achievable. For example, for many years my spouse and I shared an objective of remaining friends with our three children during our lives—not too ambitious but not always assured.

Also read: How to live happier: Diversify your social circle

Our late colleague at Harvard Business School, Clayton Christensen, provided inspiration for this kind of thinking by advising us, “Think about the metric by which your life will be judged”—one might add, both by others and by yourself. “Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”

Career planning provides an opportunity to think about “enough,” especially in a given timeframe. In my case, I tried to think seriously about it every five years or so. The result was what I like to think of as short-term dreaming within the context of a long-term dream. Think of the lyrics to the tune “Happy Talk” from the Broadway show South Pacific: “You got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

We take our financial cues from friends and acquaintances, whether they accumulate just enough to retire or billions of dollars in wealth. The happiest among them appear to set goals of giving nearly all of it to others in an effort to leave the world a better place than they found it.

For example, an inspiring acquaintance, Jack Bogle—founder of the Vanguard Group, comprising over $8 trillion in funds placed there by investors, and author of a book entitled Enough—died with an estate valued at $80 million, a pittance compared to today’s multibillionaires and much less than most people would have assumed. One reason was that he gave away half of what he earned throughout his career. He gained a great deal of satisfaction from being frugal with the rest. His major regret was that he didn’t have more money to give away during his lifetime.

Also read: Take this job and love it: How a growth mindset can boost happiness at work

HBS colleagues Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson expressed some of the same thoughts in a book they coauthored titled Just Enough, a personal determination made through “the art of complex decision-making about noncomparable goods.” As a result, I’ve only half-jokingly told friends that I’d like the inscription “He Came Out Even” on my gravestone.

To what degree do we compare ourselves to others in measuring? Years ago, a former student who became human resource director at a well-known Wall Street investment firm told me that one of his constant concerns was the financial wellbeing of the firm’s executives. Several were flirting with bankruptcy. The reason? The need to have the biggest condo, the best car (in New York?), the biggest boat, the fanciest wine. In the scramble to win the contest, much of this was acquired on borrowed money. None had given any thought to what was enough. It depended on how their colleagues were behaving, probably with equally little thought about “enough.”

Also read: Do experiences really make you happier than things?

HBS colleague and happiness expert Arthur Brooks refers to this as “the striver’s curse” and notes that “there is no competition for the prizes. We can all succeed and all be happier.” Of course, it requires more time spent looking within ourselves and less time looking outward.

Is this even a good way to think about our accomplishments? Our lives? Our happiness? When is the last time you’ve given concentrated attention to these matters? What’s enough? What do you think?

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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