Happiness is not a fish you can catch

I’ll start today’s article with a quote from Dalai Lama.

Everybody wants happy life. Sometimes the people – in order to achieve happy life, successful life, entirely relying on external means – money, power or some other things; I think that’s a mistake.
Ultimately, the source of joyfulness is very much within ourself. And once our mind more calm, more joyful, then our activities can also be more effective because it can be more realistic.

Are you able to differentiate between happiness and joy? Would you say that they’re the same thing? Or are they completely different?

Look around in our society today, you’ll find that being successful in life appears to be defined by the amount of expensive materialistic things that one possesses. I believe this is greatly contributed by the media. We are told by the different means of media about things that we cannot live without; we are told that we must dedicate our lives to pursuit buying these “life essential” items. Items like the expensive car, that pair of $500 dress shoes, those high-end designer clothes, that $50,000 engagement ring, the multi-million dollar mansion, the big screen ultra high definition TV, the latest smartphone, and so on and so on. The list never ends.

How often do you hear people say that they need to upgrade personal belongings because something new just come out? How often do people throw away perfectly working items because they’re “too old” or out of style? Thanks to media, many people are associating expensive materialistic things as being rich and successful. Getting all these materialistic things become our only ambition in life. Owning expensive items become the only way to impress friends, families, or completely random strangers. As unfortunate as it sounds, for many people, owning expensive things have also become the only way to satisfy themselves.

Is this really how life should be?

Obviously not, if you ask me. I truly believe the key lies in being able to tell the difference between happiness and joy.

What do happiness and joy mean to me?

For me, these two words have completely different meanings. Happiness is externally driven, it’s an instantaneous moment. If you win the lottery, you feel happy; if you get promoted at work, you feel happy; if you purchased your dream home, you feel happy. To put it simply, happiness is a momentary feeling that will disappear after a certain set of time frame, leaving you unsatisfied and wanting more. Joy, on the other hand, is internally driven and does not have a pre-defined expiry date. You can’t achieve joy unless you are content and at peace with yourself. Joy lasts much longer than happiness. You can be joyful when you wake up each morning, knowing that you’re still alive. You can be joyful knowing that you’re loved by someone. You can be joyful by laying on the grass doing absolutely nothing on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

The unfortunate thing is, that too many people mistake happiness for joy. They achieve a moment of happiness by buying something materialistic. Since this happiness only lasts a certain amount of time, it triggers them to buy more things. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having expensive stuff. However, because it is human nature to always wanting more, you will never get enough and will therefore never be satisfied. The never-ending pursuit of more stuff is where things go wrong. If you look at it from a different angle, this is no different than taking drugs. You get addicted and you cannot give up. You are better off by not having anything in the first place. In order to get away from this continuous vicious cycle, you need to ask yourself what is really important to you and what makes you content with yourself. What is more important to you? Getting that new designer’s clothes or going out on a relaxing picnic with your loved ones?

So how does this relate to me?

Once I was able to differentiate the two words, I began to understand what makes me content and what will satisfy me. I began to focus my energy and time on these things, instead of chasing that endless shadow of trying to possess the next shiny object. For example, spending time playing with Baby T, taking a walk with Mrs. T, or having a cup of coffee and some pastries with Mrs. T in a local cafe. Even simple things like creating a dividend portfolio for Baby T to create a legacy, or spending time building our dividend portfolio bring joy to my life (OK maybe I’m wierd this way, ha!). Although that expensive Ferrari convertible may look nice and may be wonderful to have, it will never bring any joy to my world. So why even bother spending energy or time on thinking about this expensive item?

To sum it up, knowing what makes me content and peaceful has made my life simpler. I can focus my energy and time on things that are important to me, like enjoying the small things in life. Just like everything in our lives, saying is easier than doing. So I practice every day in my daily life to be a better person and remind myself of the secrets to a joyful and frugal life.

PS. In case you’re wondering, the title of this post comes from an album by Our Lady Peace.

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26 thoughts on “Happiness is not a fish you can catch”

  1. Great post! I came to that realization a few years ago in a particularly intense time in my life. I love how you’ve put it. Happiness is fleeting. It’s something you get when you reach a goal you’ve worked hard at. Which is worth it. But it can’t be ‘owned’. It’s not a destination. Joy though, which was the part I couldn’t put in words, is with you every day, if you choose. The high (happiness) of paying off debt wears off, but the joy of less stress etc of being debt free can stay with you.

  2. I think that discovering and developing low-cost hobbies will allow you to live on less, increase your saving rate, and ultimately, live on less in retirement. Having the flexibility in your budget is a huge advantage, not only in retirement, but throughout your whole life… Knowing what makes you happy and (hopefully) doing it without spending too much is really great.

  3. Tawcan,

    You would probably enjoy reading Stoic philosophy. The best one to get started with this is “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. Happiness and joy are both definitely choices. They are all about how we relate to the world around us.

    Things will happen in life and from there we have the choice of how to react. We can either accept what has happened and choose a constructive way to move forward or get bogged down in the details of what “could have been”.

    Thanks for the interesting post,
    – Ryan from GRB

  4. I love tying in Buddhist principles with personal finance. It has helped me realize that the things that bring me joy aren’t material in nature, in fact, my best memories were very simple moments. Sitting by the ocean watching the sunset, laughing until my sides hurt, or riding my bike through the countryside. It’s easier to live frugally when you keep this in mind.

    • Hi Christine,

      I agree that memories will last forever and we often cherish these special moments. Often than not, these moments will bring smiles to us. 🙂

  5. Awesome, deep and thought-provoking post! I loved it and share your feelings. Contentment for me comes from time with my loved ones…not from chasing materialistic highs and the Joneses. I’m also a big fan of Dalai Lama quotes. I read an article recently with similar thoughts so let me share some of it here: “Life will never be perfect. But life seems perfect when you’ve accepted that life is not perfect. Happiness comes when you accept the imperfection, the flaws, the ups and downs, and enjoy the moments in life. Realize that everything is fleeting – the good thing will pass, the bad thing will pass – just accept life as it is. Adjust and adapt yourself to situations as much as you can”

    • Hi Andrew,

      Dalai Lama is one heck of a smart guy don’t you think? 🙂

      There are so many things that can make us happy from spending quality times with our loved ones. It’s a good idea to cherish these special moments since these moments may not last forever.

  6. Ever since I decided to retire early and enjoy the rest of my life in jobless bliss, I can probably count on one hand the number of objects (aka: “stuff”) that I bought because I thought it would make me happy. But look at me now…even without all that useless crap, I’m still happy. In fact, I’m more happy now than ever because I literally have piles of extra cash that I can save and continue to pad my retirement with. It’s the little things in life that matter, not the stuff.

    What I find helps, and I wrote a blog article about this recently, is getting yourself excited over the little things in life. Whether it’s the next football game, your favorite dinner, trying something new at the gym, whatever – keeping yourself focused will tend to alleviate the need to buy stuff for the sake of very temporary happiness. It really is all a mind game, but I’m okay with that.

    Master your mind, and you’ll soon master your life.

    • Hi Steve,

      Getting yourself excited over the little things in life is a great idea! I definitely practice doing that on a daily basis. This will trick your mind from wanting all these unnecessary things.

  7. I was trying to have this conversation with my wife the other day – as she had bought me some work clothes I didn’t want and thought were too expensive [I’ve found a source for some $9 Levi’s, which admittedly are baggy and not the best looking]. But, clothes and appearance aren’t real important to me.

    But, my wife’s happiness is, so I ended up keeping the new clothes she bought me. Certainly love makes us do weird things!

  8. Hi Tawcan, thanks for a really interesting and thought-provoking post.

    I believe in happiness and contentment. Happiness, like your definition, is something that is temporary and based on external stimuli. We may think of the word happiness and its relationship to the word ‘mishap’ – when something goes wrong.

    Contentment is having a certain level of equanimity about life, not basing your own positivity on external stimuli, but having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ in your day to day life, whether you have much or little.

    Joy for me, is something very different. It is an intense positive feeling, which is based on external stimuli, but ones which fulfill a deeper sense of worth/value/purpose in my life. For example, seeing my little child smiling up at me in the morning fills me with joy.

    Best Wishes for 2015,


  9. Tawcan,

    Interesting post!

    I happen to believe in hedonic adaptation. That basically proposes we all have a “baseline” happiness level. External stimulants will likely boost your happiness beyond that baseline for a bit, but eventually it’ll come back down again. People eventually adapt to their new surroundings, and then it’s on to the next “thing” to make you happy. They don’t realize they’re on a treadmill that never ends. We all adapt to basically anything that happens to us in life. The key is to realize that and use it to your advantage. Then it becomes easy to focus on those activities/experiences/lifestyles/situations that create enduring satisfaction, like financial independence.

    Best regards!

    • Hi Dividend Mantra,

      Hedonic adaptation is an interesting idea. I believe in it in some way I guess. There’s definitely a baseline of happiness level for all of us.

  10. Tawcan,

    I really enjoyed this post. It still truly amazes me how many people are stuck on the hedonic treadmill and believe this is what makes them happy. I have found that once I began getting rid of possessions in my life I actually became happier. I still have yet to find that minimal existence as I continue to get rid of items as I steam ahead to financial independence.

    I still have yet to find a more powerful feeling than knowing you can have or afford what your friends have but are choosing not to as it will not make a significant impact in how happy you are with yourself and your life.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Mr. Captain Cash,

      A lot of us are stuck on the hedonic treadmill and the earlier that we get off this endless cycle, the better our lives will be.

  11. Hi Tawcan,

    Nice topic and well said!

    I took me a while to come around to this way of thinking, but when you experience the simple things in life, there is no replacing that. ‘Buying things’ is a bit like getting drunk, fun at the time, but you have a bit of a down period after a while. People in this society (especially the UK) would make fun of people that ‘don’t drink’ or spend money on ‘things’, but in reality those people are missing out on the truly great things life has to offer.

    I agree with Jayson too, Happiness is a choice we can all make. Not to say it’s easy, but we have the control.


  12. Tawcan,

    Many people do seem to confuse the concepts of happiness and joy. I believe that’s because people feeling happy by an external factor start to chase their next happiness ‘high’. They go from one happy moment to another without thinking twice.

    I’m glad to hear you’ve found a way to discover what true happiness (i.e. joy) means and that you’re actively pursuing it.


    • Hi Jayson,

      Totally agree, how you achieve happiness is totally dependent on the individual. I’m just saying we should strive for joy rather than happiness in the long run. 🙂

  13. Definitely Tawcan, I have been doing a lot of thinking about life lately and have come to realize that life is much more than just crunching net worth and money. Very inspiring post!

  14. A very interesting thought-provoking post, T. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We sure are brain-washed to look for external stimulants to give a meaning to our life. Good to hear that you have circumspected to figure out what gives you happiness and joy. It takes a lifetime for a lot of folks to get to that point.



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