By John Sonmez September 7, 2015

Money Won’t Make You Happy: Programmer Edition

We’ve all heard the phrase “money can’t buy happiness,” but how many of us really believe it?

Sure, at a surface level, I think most of us tend to agree that being happy is more than having money and that there are some intangible and priceless things in life that are very valuable.

But…

Deep down, most of us really do believe that more money will solve all our problems.

It’s hard not to. So much of our lives is focused around money and getting more of it.

tired businessman or taxi car driverWe go to work everyday to “bring home the bacon.”

When we get home from work, we have bills to pay.

We try to improve our skills and try to get a better job or promotion, mostly with the intent of making more money.

Even when we go on vacation, we frequently think about how much it’s costing us—as I’m so pleasantly reminded as I’m here visiting oh-so-expensive Iceland.

And don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with all of this. I mean, we can’t pretend like money isn’t important.

But there is something wrong with falsely holding onto the belief that there is some amount of money or even fame that will eventually, ultimately fulfill us and make us happy.

I’ve been saying this for a long time, but I haven’t had a really good case study to use in the software development world, until I stumbled across a pretty sad article today.

Over 1 billion dollars and he’s still not happy…

In fact, he’s more depressed than ever before.

Markus Persson is the Swedish programmer who created Minecraft over a weekend in 2009.

Fast forward to today, where he has fairly recently sold his company to Microsoft for 2.5 billion dollars, easily making him a billionaire.

Minecraft computer game in the genre with elements of survival sHe should be happy, right?

Living the high life. Partying hard. Everyone likes him. He can have anything he wants. He doesn’t have to work anymore.

The perfect formula for happiness, right?

Wrong!

Just read through the series of Persson’s tweets highlighted by this article. In fact, take a quick scan through his Twitter timeline.

I don’t mean to be mean here, so don’t take it the wrong way, but when you look through his Twitter timeline, he doesn’t just seem unhappy, but pathetic.

He seems desperate for friends. Desperate to make some kind of meaning out of his life and is very unhappy and lost.

I think this tweet sums it up best:

“The problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying, and human interaction becomes impossible due to imbalance.”

Markus didn’t even win the lottery

No, he actually created a game and a company and sold it to make his money. It wasn’t just handed to him on a silver platter.

Sure, he might not have had to work quite as hard as some people to amass their fortunes, and he might have gotten a little lucky, but he can still feel pretty damn proud of his accomplishment.

I mean, he actually created something that was wildly popular around the world.

He deserves the cash he got—he didn’t rob a bank—yet he’s still not happy.

To me, it’s a sobering thought.

It really makes me consider what we are all striving for and if it’s really worth it.

I’m nowhere near as successful as Markus, and I’ve felt it myself.

I remember just a few years back thinking about how great it would be when I finally didn’t have to work anymore. Thinking about how it would be to quit my job and just run Simple Programmer—and to do it part time.

I remember thinking about how good it would feel to write a book and become “a real, published author.”

And it did feel good—at first.

But then… it became… well, normal.

I found that getting everything I had been hoping for and striving for didn’t actually make me quite as happy as I thought it would.

I found myself becoming accustomed to my new reality and even taking it for granted. Worse yet, I found myself wanting to reach for even more.

It was then that I truly realized that nothing would be good enough.

And that is where we can learn from Markus’s example.

As a software developer, it’s difficult to imagine achieving much more than he did.

Not only did he develop a super successful, highly addictive game, but he sold it for billions of dollars and did it while he was still relatively young.

Markus, in some ways, shows us a glimpse of what some of us are aiming for—for our wildest dreams to come true—and he shows us the dark side of it, before it’s too late for us.

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be successful

Make Cash in Your Robe!It doesn’t mean that at all.

But what it does mean is that we need to realize that success and money are not ultimately the things that are going to make us happy and make us feel fulfilled.

Again, I’ve only a fraction of the wealth and success that Markus possesses, but I’ve felt the effects on a small scale.

You strive and strive for a thing and you finally get it, and then you are lost and instead of celebrating, you feel like you have no purpose.

A few years ago, I embarked on a 12-week body transformation challenge where I worked extremely hard to get myself in better shape than ever before.

I ate the strictest diet I had ever been on, followed my exercise routine perfectly, and ultimately won the competition, achieving stellar results.

Once it was all said and done, was I happy?

No. In fact, quite the opposite.

I fell into a deep depression that lasted a few weeks until I found another purpose and goal for my life and realized that hitting the end of that 12-week challenge was not the end of my life, but just of that chapter.

I didn’t find happiness again until I found a new challenge and goal to set my sights on.

Hurl the spear forward, reach for it, pick it up, hurl it again.

That’s the key to life.

The joy doesn’t come in picking up the spear or even tossing it, but in chasing it, again and again.

You’ve heard it said many times, I’m sure, but life is a journey, enjoy the ride.

It’s true.

We have to focus on the journey itself.

We have to realize that what we are doing now is the fun part.

Even as I sit here now, writing this post, I forget that

It’s easy for me to say, “I have to write a blog post this week,” instead of saying I get to write a blog post this week.

I forget how much I actually enjoy writing.

I forget how much of a privilege it is to be able to share my thoughts with hundreds of thousands of other software developers and programmers.

I forget that the very quality that makes writing hard is what makes it worth doing and ultimately enjoyable.

And then I realize that I was doing this with my career as well.

How many days did I spend waiting for the clock to tick down to 5:00 PM instead of actually living and enjoying every moment I had writing code or solving problems?

How many times did I “live for the weekends” or count down the days until my vacation?

(By the way, MJ DeMarco has some wise words on this topic in The Millionaire Fastlane, a really good book.)

I’m not saying I never enjoyed my work—I did enjoy it immensely. I love programming, but I didn’t enjoy it enough, because I always saw it as a means to an end and not the end itself.

What about you?

Crying businessmanWhen you sit down at your desk to work, are you wishing for something else, or are you able to fully embrace and enjoy the moment?

Do you think of what you get to do each day as a sentence or a privilege?

Is it a means to an end, or do you give it value in itself?

Do you realize that 90% of the enjoyment you get out of life will come from the hard work and only 10% from the enjoyment of the rewards it brings?

More importantly, have you learned to live with yourself?

Or have you strived so hard and been distracted by so much that, if you were gifted with a sudden financial windfall, it would actually be a slap in the face? You’d suddenly be forced to look in the mirror and perhaps find that you didn’t really like what it was you saw.

Again, I’m not saying “don’t be ambitious.”

I’m not saying “don’t set high standards and goals for yourself.” In fact, I’m saying you should do precisely that.

But what I cautioning you on is how you approach it.

Don’t strive onward thinking that reaching the next level will bring happiness.

Don’t fast-forward through you life trying to get to the good parts, so you can finally relax and live at normal speed. (If you do, you’ll find the fast-forward button is broken, and you can’t slow down.)

Instead, focus on the moment.

Focus on realizing that it is your character and your mind that you have to shape to your will and that anything outside yourself cannot bring you lasting happiness and fulfillment, because it can be taken away, and you’ll eventually become habituated to it.

Realize that, right now, in the present where you sit, your life is happening.

You don’t have to wait for it to begin, and you can’t put it on hold.

And if you happen to pass by me in an airport or see me at a conference, stop me and remind me as well, because I can always use a reminder.

About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."