If we wanted to assess the worth of a business, we would use money as our means of measurement. We would calculate the dollar value of its assets and liabilities, profits and losses. Anything that could not be translated into monetary terms would not increase or decrease the value of the company. In this case—in measuring a company’s worth—money is the ultimate currency.
A human being, like a business, makes profits and suffers losses. For a human being, however, the ultimate currency is not money, nor is it any external measure, such as fame, fortune, or power. The ultimate currency for a human being is happiness.
Money and fame are subordinate to happiness and have no intrinsic value. The only reason money and fame may be desirable is that having them or the thought of having them could lead to positive emotions or meaning. In themselves, wealth and fame are worthless.
The ramifications of understanding that happiness is the ultimate currency are dramatic. To take an extreme example, if we were offered the choice between a million dollars and a conversation with a friend, we should choose the one that would give us more overall happiness. If the conversation provided more emotional gratification and meaning than a million dollars, then we should choose the conversation. Using the ultimate currency as the standard, we would profit more if we were to choose the conversation.
Weighing the value of a conversation against money may seem like comparing apples to oranges. But by translating money, conversations, or anything else, for that matter, into the currency of happiness, through evaluating how happy something makes us, we have a common currency that enables us to compare seemingly unrelated experiences.
Needless to say, the choice between a million dollars and a conversation is not so simple. A large sum of money can provide security in the future, and that may prevent certain negative emotions in the long run. If, however, after taking the full context into consideration, we find that the conversation will yield more pleasure and meaning, then it is ultimately of more value to us than a million dollars. As the psychologist Carl Jung said, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”
Creating a Happiness Map
For a period of a week or two, record your daily activities. At the end of each day, write down how you spent your time, from half an hour e-mailing to two hours watching TV. At the end of the week, create a table listing each of your activities, the amount of time you devoted to each one, and how much meaning and pleasure each one provides (you can use a scale of 1 through 5, with 1 indicating no meaning or pleasure, and 5 signifying very high meaning or pleasure). Next to the amount of time, indicate whether you would like to spend more or less of your time on the activity.
Based on the data you have collected, envision your ideal week. Make it as realistic as you can given the obligations in your life. Are there things you do not do now that would yield high profits in the ultimate currency? Would going to the movies once a week contribute to your well-being? Would it make you happier to devote four hours a week to your hobby?
If you have many constraints and cannot introduce significant change, consider what brief activities that provide you both future and present benefit you could introduce to your life. If a one-hour commute to work is uninspiring but unavoidable, try to introduce some meaning and pleasure to it—listen to audiobooks or to your favorite music for part of the ride.
Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, is an author and lecturer who teaches the Certificate in Positive Psychology program at Kripalu. He taught the largest course at Harvard on Positive Psychology and the third largest on “The Psychology of Leadership”—with a total of over 1,400 students. He currently teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, where he cofounded The Institute for Positive Psychology in Education. This post is adapted from his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.
Find out more about the Certificate in Positive Psychology, April 8, 2013–March 7, 2014.