The Price of Misery

Published on March 8, 2021

Twitter allows users to run polls. Anyone can respond. In practice, most of the responses will come from your followers, and the type of followers you have will obviously impact the results. It is quite clearly not a random sample of the general population, but instead a sample of followers at a moment in time. A respondent’s answer is not publicly visible which fosters honesty. It takes a second to vote in a poll and what you’re capturing is a gut reaction rather than much considered thought. And that gut reaction depends on the life experiences of the person who is responding.

Over the weekend, I ran the following poll which had 1,210 responses:

There is not much room for nuance in a 280 character tweet. The wording probably encouraged people to answer based on their own personal situation and the cost of their lifestyle. Given that most of my followers are in the “fintwit” community, we are talking about a relatively affluent group.

The point of the survey was to explore the trade-offs between money and happiness. If you are spending two thousand hours per year doing your job, that is nearly 23 percent of the total number of hours in a year, and an even greater percentage of your waking hours.

What is the price you’re willing to pay to be happy during those working hours?

Ignoring tax considerations and looking just at gross income, the incremental cost of happiness over boredom is $37.50 per hour. The cost of boredom over misery is $75 per hour.

I chose $75,000 per year as the baseline job because it exceeds the median family income in the United States. Although it might seem like a small sum to many people, how many Americans would jump at a chance to work at a job that they love that pays more than the median family income?

It depends on your stage in life and the cost of your current lifestyle. If you are 22 years old and just starting out, you will answer differently than if you are 50 years old with a mortgage and three children who about to enroll in college. As we get older and accumulate more fixed expenses, the cumulative effect of our lifestyle decisions ossify.

Some younger people might prefer the $300,000 job because they figure that they can work for a few years in a job they hate and save money before switching to the $75,000 job that they will love.

There are at least two problems with this idea: First, you’re accepting misery early in your career in exchange for money which will breed all kinds of negative attitudes toward work and you will not gain any traction in the field that you eventually want to enter. Second, your lifestyle is likely to ratchet up to consume most of the $300,000 income. Why? Because your friends and coworkers are likely to also be affluent and you will rationalize that you should “treat yourself” because, after all, you deserve it. You hate your job so you want to enjoy your free time.

Soon enough, you’re trapped because your lifestyle will no longer permit switching to the career you love.

Financial security is extremely important but it has more to do with your lifestyle decisions early in life than maximizing income. Trading misery for money seems like a terrible way to get ahead because the temporary has a way of becoming permanent.

Of course, the ultimate solution is to work in a career you love that also pays extremely well — but the best of both worlds is not always possible.

As Seneca said, “Life is long if you know how to use it.”

The Price of Misery
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