How much money is enough? Some people might give this question a flippant answer like, “A lot more than I have!” Others might argue there is a finite income or asset level that “should” be enough. But of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

In last week’s column, I explored the concept of well-being as comprised of three factors: prosperity, happiness, and health. Without considering the components of happiness and health, we simply can’t answer the question of how much money is enough.

True, research has verified that having enough money to comfortably meet our basic needs is related to happiness. Yet the accumulation of money in and of itself rarely brings happiness. Many of us know people who have set financial goals: “When I earn $50,000 a year or have a net worth of $500,000, I’ll be happy.” When they attain that goal, they decide they will actually be happy when they obtain more.

Happiness is not entirely determined by the amount of money we have, but rather what we do with our money to support living an authentic life. An authentic life is one free from control by others in which our lifestyle is congruent with our deepest goals and desires.

The first step to finding out how much is enough is to put away your calculator and determine what makes you happy. Finding out what brings happiness to your life may be a bit more daunting than you first think.

The first things you may think of that make you happy are activities such as having a good meal or glass of wine, shopping, a new car or home, a vacation, or a romantic rendezvous with that special person. These are all pleasures, activities that give us a short-term boost of endorphins but are not long-lasting. Psychologists tell us that sustainable happiness comes from gratifications, which are long-lasting activities that draw on and challenge our personal talents, strengths and abilities.

The questions then become: What challenges you? What activities do you engage in that make time seem to stand still? That leave you energized and fulfilled?

Answering these questions takes some focus and time, sometimes years. Most of us don’t have the luxury to go meditate on a mountaintop until we figure out what will make us happy. While we’re defining the goals and activities that will gratify us, we also need to be making a living.

In fact, I would go even further and suggest that, while you’re exploring these essential questions, you also work on building some wealth. That way, when you eventually answer the question, “How much money is enough?” you’ll be well on your way to having that amount.

The challenge is to be sure that accumulating money doesn’t become a goal in itself. Here are a few ways to help your life aspiration planning and your wealth-building support each other in a balanced way.

Learn the basics of investing and focus on the long term. Don’t allow yourself to get pulled into attempts to make money in a hurry through high-risk speculation or trading individual stocks.

Develop the habit of living on less than you make, so you don’t find yourself using up precious time and energy supporting a lifestyle you don’t really want.

Don’t invest a lot in an education until you’re sure it supports your life aspirations.

Finally, think in terms of “financial planning,” rather than “managing money.” A true financial plan is far more than a budget. It is a blueprint for using all your resources—including money—to create and support the fulfilled, gratifying life you want.

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