Much ado about Money

Since PopCap sold I’ve grappled with the reality of wealth. Having a bunch of money in the bank hasn’t made life any easier, and in fact, has complicated things quite a bit. Questions of how to invest, spend and manage the money abound, with many people giving advice (some appreciated, some…). In fact, all of society is set to give advice. Buy this, that, or the other thing. A new watch, car, house, or yacht is the answer. With wealth, all of those dreams may come true.

The thing is, having a bunch of money is the best way to show that money doesn’t actually buy happiness, and proves quite the opposite. Wealth works against happiness and fulfillment. The weird thing is, wealthy people don’t speak about this problem. Some feel that it’s uncouth. Some don’t want to come across as whiny. Some hide from the world. Some think more money, power, or success is the obvious answer.

Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune, made a documentary titled Born Rich. It wasn’t 100% applicable to the newly rich, or the mildly wealthy, but at least the filmmaker tried to get some things out there. His second movie, The One Percent, deals with the problems of an unbalanced society. But outside of that, there’s not much out there.

One of the goals of the blog is to start getting some of this on the table for conversation and this is the start.

    • Jeremy
    • March 12th, 2012

    It is really wonderful to have an authentic voice to listen to around this topic, thanks John,

    • I’m going to give it my varsity best! Thank you for the encouragement.

  1. Being middle-class is also not a path to happiness, the problems are different and further down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Seems that wealth at any and all levels introduces their own set of issues.

    For a while now I’ve been thinking that one way to harvest happiness is to form strong supportive communities. I really felt this when ordinary people put together their monies for my charity:water project. It was/is very very touching.

    • I think the path of extreme poverty, or even poverty by comparison, are pretty rough. The question is not whether being middle-class is a path to happiness, but what is a bigger detriment to ones self actualization?

      As a percentage, are there more self actualized wealthy people or middleclassers?

      I’m with you about the supportive communities. I also think intimacy with people is super important. Are you hanging out with people to just pass the time? Or are you sharing a sense of purpose. Sharing meaningful aspects of yourself?

        • Arthur Mayes
        • March 13th, 2012

        Vichy, I think the self-actualization question is the most interesting. The question of happiness has little to do with external circumstances, imho, and a lot to do with our ability to embrace ourselves and those around us as brilliantly flawed beings.
        So: what, then, do you consider self-actualization to be– especially in a society where many consider wealth to be the measure?

        • Arthur Mayes
        • March 13th, 2012

        Also, sorry about the name misspelling. For so many years, that’s how I spelled it in my head. I blame Jason Simpson lol

  2. I’ve got a pile of articles on the disconnect between wealth and happiness, but you already know about that. Have you read any of Nick Hanauer’s books? (I’ve got an extra copy of his newest one – yours if you want it.) They’re more about citizenship than the problems of wealth, but I get the sense that his transition to super-wealth might not have been completely smooth. And, along with Warren Buffet, he’s been one of the more vocal rich people about not leaving everyone else behind. Bill Gates, Sr., and his co-author Chuck Collins also leap to mind. These guys all talk about taxing the rich more, so if that’s not your thing, then you’ll need to keep looking for mentors and comrades. Anyhow, just throwing out names of thoughtful rich people. All my best to you, amigo.

    • I actually have never heard of Nick Hanauer, but have ordered the Kindle edition of The Gardens of Democracy.

      I’m still debating on how much political discourse to get into on the blog. I wouldn’t want the overall discussion of “what is more effective for ourselves and society” in regards to any of my blog topics to be colored by idealogical unlistening.

      Thanks for the recommendations Larry, and yes, you’ve always been a standout person that focuses less on accumulation and more on quality of life!

    • Marianna Veress
    • March 12th, 2012

    I will talk to you one-on-one about this. Maybe offering different views will change the outcome of how you see this. Lunch is in order.

    • It’s an open discussion! Feel free to chime in with your thoughts publicly, though lunch is always welcome!

    • Sarah Keimig
    • March 12th, 2012

    Some of the richest experiences we had were when we, as a family, had what we needed and not much else. This is when we laid the foundation of our marriage and how we wanted to raise our kids. We were forced to concentrate only on what actually mattered. I often wonder how things would have turned out if we had a lot of extra money. Perhaps it would not have had much impact? All I know is that there was a lot less stress and it was easier to find joy in small things. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about how to get back to that but it cannot be replicated artificially. My personal journey is one of introspection.
    I don’t know If I have much to offer intellectually but I hope you find what you need, John. I will be following along with the hope of learning something from YOUR journey.

    • This blog may be referencing my journey, but I hope it can shine light on all of our journeys. It’s been amazing to see the amount of people posting comments and viewing the blog post.

      I don’t think the “simpler times” are possible to replicate artificially, as you say, but I do think we make choices about how to spend our money and time. Many of those choices have a hidden tax whether just having something hanging around that you don’t use, or actually sucking time away from sharing experiences with loved ones.

      How do you think introspection has helped you make different choices?

    • Glenn Drover
    • March 12th, 2012

    With newfound wealth you now have the freedom to pusue what makes you happy (or fulfilled). You are not forced to spend your time in exchange for the money needed to exist.

    While this certainly does not equal automatic happiness, many more doors are now open.

    The risk is that having lots of money not only comes with alot of responsibility to manage it so that it doesn’t go away and deprive you of your newfound freedom, but it also can come with sadness or depression or emptiness. While it seems counter-intuitive, the human psyche is geared for struggle and the satisfaction that comes with fulfilling the daily goals that stand before us. Newfound wealth suddenly and shockingly removes those small wins and can make everyday battles (and victories) meaningless. Not having to worry about anything means that you never overcome anything.

    The key, as in so much of life, is to create your own reality. Create new goals, new aspirations, new adventures, new relationships, new challenges. Without these, you are bound to have an empty and ultimately unrewarding life.

    The good news is that your newfound wealth = options. You now have the resources to pursue any goal that you decide. You have almost total freedom…but first you must decide what freedom means and then choose it.

    • Derrickm
    • March 12th, 2012

    My wife and I moved to Seattle from Los Angeles 9 years ago this month. We were both working making great livings and doing jobs we loved — I was a VP at Vivendi/Universal and she was an SVP at Paramount Pictures — but we had two nannies and a housekeeper taking care of our small kids while we worked til 8 and 9 PM every night. We looked around one day and decided that it wasn’t worth it. We decided to move to where the cost of living would allow us to scale back to just one of us working and dramatically curtail our monthly budget. We’ve never regretted it.

    I am far from rich but have had the experience of getting some small chunks of money all at once from liquidity events at companies where I’ve worked. The thing that strikes me is that the main reason the boats, cars, houses and such don’t add to happiness is that they weigh you down. All of our lives have a certain amount of maintenance and expensive possessions, even inexpensive ones, add to that maintenance. You can hire people to do some of that maintenance for you but then you’re managing people which is another form of maintenance.

    Ultimately this is about self-actualization but for most people it’s a struggle to know who that self is.

    • Was there a catalyst for looking around and realizing you should scale back? Was there a temptation or draw to repeat the same behavior?

      I know that you work really hard and a lot, but also love your job, how do you balance life with having a start up?

        • Derrickm
        • March 13th, 2012

        9/11 had a big impact on us. Made us reexamine our lives. That was probably the biggest catalyst.

        Today I work everything in by making sure I see the kids off to school and have dinner with them every night. I’m almost always working until midnight after they go to bed and up early with them in the morning. My wife and I are active in their lives — she’s a race official for my daughter’s swim team and I’m the Scoutmaster of my son’s Boy Scout Troop. We’re a VERY busy family and my wife and I don’t get a lot of sleep but we’ll have plenty of time to sleep more when they are off to college in a few years.

    • Ofer Leidner
    • March 13th, 2012

    Hi John,
    Google the term “hedonic treadmill” to find a lot of research on this exact matter. In recent years scientists have looked at this applying a rigid scientific framework to research it and came up with a decisive conclusion.

    • That’s a pretty interesting wikipedia page. One quote that stood out for me : “..research tends to support a three-factor model, where our level of happiness is 50% determined by genetics, 10% determined by outside circumstances, and 40% determined by intentional activities.”

      That’s pretty amazing if true. And kind of empowering. On one hand you get to give yourself some slack as it’s not all in your control, but enough is that you can still make a difference.

      Thanks for sharing that one. I’m going to do some more research and give it a lot of thought!

    • Ryan
    • March 13th, 2012

    Being unemployed for nearly the last two years, and having the household income almost halved has giving me a much different perspective in regards to this topic. At least from the middle class point of view. The wife and I have lived off of far less money than I would have ever imagined we could. It hasn’t been easy, but it also hasn’t been all that hard, or at least doesn’t seem like it’s been. I think Tim hit the nail on the head when talking about a supportive community. It’s the support I’ve received from great friends and an amazing wife that’s made these last couple of years a very positive experience. I’ve realized that I could easily survive without the extra cash, but I could not survive without the people around me. Not to get all City Slickers on you, but do you know what the secret to life is? One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.

    • So as you renter the work force, move to two incomes, and start making more money, how do you think that community and support structure will take a hit (if it does)? Do you think that you could get to a state of having more, while having less?

  3. From what I’ve seen, conscious appreciation leads to happiness. I can have the same exact event happen in my life and I can choose to be happy about it, I can choose to pay no attention to it, or I can even be upset by it. Happiness is more of a practice and habit.

    I’ve got my own set of emotional baggage, history and beliefs which make it easier to give that appreciation to a certain event and harder for others. For example, I could sit around enjoying looking at a rock all day, but it would be much easier to appreciate time in my hot tub. Since I’m not a Zen monk, if someone walked by and punched me in the face, I probably wouldn’t choose to appreciate that.

    Though media likes to portray lottery winners and people that gain large amounts of cash as being super happy about it, it doesn’t change that formula. They have to choose to be happy and conscious to having those new things every day and they will most likely repeat the same patterns of disappointment and depression they had in their poor life.

    It’s complicated too when you can’t share your excitement or joy for what you have with the people around you.. I was glad to be the only one in my group of friends without a “Money Conversation”, until I became the go to guy to solve all their money problems. Not only did it make me feel a bit used, but it also seemed to make me feel separate and not fit in.

    In the book the millionaire next door, they explain that most millionaires have no outward appearance that would hint to the wealth they have, normal house, normal car, normal life… It seems there is a good reason for that.

    I think it’s a giant challenge to stand out and be “rich” that most are not ready for. To stand out on your own in many ways, risking separation from all your friends/family and having to deal directly with your own issues of what you deserve to have/be.

    Some would also say that people reach the level of abundance that they are aligned with having. That would mean that 99% of people are not aligned with being wealthy.. So, if you think, listen to, act like and do most of the things that the 99% does, you should expect to feel out of alignment (very unhappy) with being “rich”.

    Humans are social beings too, in most cases you are the average of your 7 closest friends financial wise, happiness wise and so on.. It doesn’t mean you have to stop talking to your relatives though… It just means watch what goes into your mind and what you think about most of the time. Listen to 30 minutes of Zig Ziglar or meditate on being happy and grateful for 20 minutes and if your aunt wants to go off about a money issue for 30 minutes, you’ll probably end up ahead over all.

    Hope my musings help. Glad to see you Blogging John, miss ya.

      • Tim Bruhn
      • March 13th, 2012

      Just as an aside, 100% of Zen monks don’t enjoy being punched in the face. Some things are universal constants.

    • That’s a great set of musings Kevin, and I’m grateful for them. Thank you for posting.

      It’s an interesting note you make about the 99% not being aligned with being wealthy and thus more outside. I think the feeling is probably amplified with society pushing the rich and famous as being special, prettier, smarter, happier, different.

      I’m also going to add up the strengths and weaknesses of my seven closest friends and see if I’m the average. 🙂

  4. Arthur Mayes :

    Vichy, I think the self-actualization question is the most interesting. The question of happiness has little to do with external circumstances, imho, and a lot to do with our ability to embrace ourselves and those around us as brilliantly flawed beings.
    So: what, then, do you consider self-actualization to be– especially in a society where many consider wealth to be the measure?

    In some ways I agree with the idea that external circumstances have little to do with happiness, but I also believe that our control of those circumstances easily puts up roadblocks.

    Having a big bank account is not the problem with many wealthy people, but pretending to believe the lies of society and trying to live up to an ideal through money would certainly be a huge barrier.

      • Art Mayes
      • April 11th, 2012

      Doesn’t a big part of self-actualization have to do with casting aside social expectations, and embracing your highest vision of yourself? I mean, while having lots of money certainly empowers us to indulge epicly in our worst vices, it also enables us to accomplish almost anything we can imagine!

    • Ed Fries
    • March 13th, 2012

    What if you had everything?
    Each shiny bauble as seen on TV?
    Your car, a screaming blur of chrome and wing,
    Your close cut sharp, they fit you perfectly.

    A wife of shocking beauty, style and grace.
    Three kids, distinguished leaders in their class.
    Their purebred pets, each perfect hair in place,
    Roam ’round your mansion’s acreage of grass.

    And when you’ve toured the world and seen the sights,
    And flown your jet and piloted your yacht.
    And still feel small and terrified at night,
    Then what?


    • Where’d that come from Mr. Fries? That’s a really powerful poem / thought.

      • Just something I wrote on a flight to Japan many years ago when pondering the same issues.


    • Kathy Rothstein
    • March 14th, 2012

    There is a theory that people have a “happiness thermostat.” Life events can temporarily change your state of happiness. But after a period of time, most people readjust to their original temperature.

    Changing your happiness thermostat takes truly conscious effort.

    • I’ve been looking more and more at that theory. It’s quite interesting and lines up with my experiences.

    • Travis Baldree
    • March 14th, 2012

    What I think is interesting is that the problems of having wealth seem like they are really part of the larger issues that arise when you manage to achieve your greater goals. Wealth for many IS a greater goal ( or a marker of their achievement of a goal ). For most of my life, I have had a very clear set of goals – and then I achieved them. I’m not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m certainly not poor, and I got what I wanted.

    Now what?

    I structured my life, education, social structure, and everything else around the path to achieving a specific goal – but reaching that milestone only provided fleeting satisfaction at best. At the same time, there’s profound guilt in NOT feeling long-lasting happiness after getting what you want. There are millions of other people who want to do what I’ve done. What gives me the right not to be permanently ecstatic over getting what I wanted? Moreover, don’t I bear responsibility to the people who helped me achieve what I wanted – shouldn’t I be happy about it and validate the help they’ve offered me?

    And yet, I was much happier when I was on the road to getting what I wanted, and success always seemed just over the horizon. Every bit of forward motion felt meaningful.

    I could set a NEW and bigger goal (as many people do – more money! more houses! more influence! ) , but to a certain extent, it’s like the illusion has been spoiled. I know that previously, to be happy, I needed to stay on the treadmill to a never-arriving endpoint. But knowing that, would I be happy on the treadmill again?

    I have no answers for this, but am wrestling with it now. Love your blog John, very thought provoking.

      • Glenn Drover
      • March 15th, 2012


      I agree completely with what you say. I tried to make the same point, but perhaps not quite so eloquently. Human nature is to strive. We seem to thrive on struggle, and our Capitalist society focuses that struggle on material success.

      Once great wealth is achieved, the everyday struggle is meaningless, and much of the meaning is stripped from life. Without a reorientation, the ship of life might float directionless.

      The challenge for the newly wealthy is to reestablish their bearings and chart a new destination over the next horizon. Is it personal growth, relationships, charitable giving, a new project. There is much in life that is exciting and new even after working for a living becomes unnecessary. Finding what will make them happy and fulfilled is the challenge. Some never do and fall into depression or worse.

      • In some ways I agree, but the answer can’t be outside.

        I’m sure an option would be to go live in a cave link a monk, or do something completely different with my life, but I don’t want to live in a cave, and I love what I do working at PopCap with people I love on products that are cool.

        That’s one of the things I struggle with. Many answers seem to point to something external, but that’s how we got here in the first place.

        • Glenn Drover
        • March 15th, 2012

        Actually I think the answer is completely INTERNAL. A person in this situation (wealth has changed their life) now has the challenge of finding new challenges. They must go on a bit of an internal quest to find what those are. It’s analogous to the age-old question about the meaning of life: where the obvious (and somewhat unhelpful) answer is: whatever you want it to be.

        Human nature demands that we strive. We are the most satisfied when we are accomplishing things big and small.

        I suggest that in order to find new challenges, you don’t need to change the parts of your life that already make you happy (PopCap, friends, etc.), but rather you need to layer on a few challenges that you personally can get excited about. Without excitement and new worlds to conquer, we wither and die.

    • So what are you doing or how are you exploring?

      When a big illusion is spoiled (riches will solve problems, a new house will be the answer, no more bills please), how does one go about resetting?

      I’m really happy that so many people are part of this conversation and thinking about this as well.

        • Travis Baldree
        • March 15th, 2012

        So, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit over the last year or so.
        It seems to me that I experience two different kinds of contentment or joy in my life – contemplative and active. Active is easier – the act of doing something allows me to submerge myself in it, and I get satisfaction, or a pleasant feeling, or whatever. Contemplative is harder – I reflect on what I want to do, or something in the future, or something in the past, and those thoughts make me happy or content.

        I can still achieve active contentment – contemplative not so much. If I think about things too much, it spoils it. All these notions I have of how I should be spending my time, or what I should be doing.

        Most of our early upbringing is along the lines of ‘do all this hard stuff you don’t want to do, make sacrifices now, and then there is a reward later’. There’s value in that, but not to the exclusion of everyday happiness, because I think it is dangerous to forego daily happiness in favor of theoretical future happiness. Our society pushes it a lot though.
        I was certainly brought up that way. I find it hard on a daily basis to think about doing something for any extended period of time that isn’t ‘productive’. I’ve been trained ( or trained myself ) not to think of my own happiness as a productive outcome, which I think is wrong. My psyche, or whatever, hasn’t caught on to that though. I actually have a physical reaction at this point to contemplating doing something ‘nonproductive’ – a sinking of the stomach. All that time, and I won’t get anything out of it! Except that I would – I’d be happier.

        My theoretical solution to this is to try and clear the board for some space of time, and attempt to retrain myself. I think maybe to try to do everyday things that give me active contentment, and prevent myself for reflecting on them. Maybe if I do that long enough, when I look back on a period of time, I can reflect on it and be positive about the fact that I was happy doing something simple, and that it was good for me and the people around me that I did so. I think I need to retrain myself about what ‘productive’ means. Or something. I wish I was in a better position to attempt to do this right now, but it’ll have to wait a few months.

        Good god I am long-winded.

    • Dave Del Principe
    • April 10th, 2012

    I am sorry to be commenting on this so late. Still in the midst of tax season in the public accounting field. I actually commented to my wife about you when we found out you sold PopCap.

    I wondered how you would be able to trust anyone you knew before you had money. Any profound answers?

    • Dave Del Principe
    • April 10th, 2012

    I meant anyone who knew you after you had money.

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