“There’s a well-known gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps who explains to his young Marines when they complain about pay, that they get two kinds of salary – a financial salary and a psychological salary. The financial salary is indeed meager. But the psychological salary? Pride, honor, integrity, the chance to part of a corps with a history of service, valor, glory; to have friends who would sacrifice their lives for you, as you would for them – and to know that you remain a part of this brotherhood as long as you live. How much is that worth?” – Steven Pressfield, The Warrior Ethos

Before you start to read this post, I want to ask you a question.

It might be a bit up front, but it needs to be asked.

Are you happy with how much your work pays you?

Now I don’t just mean the number that gets deposited into your account every month. I mean what you are paid in well-being. What you are paid in terms of engagement, challenge, or positive emotional experiences?

It doesn’t matter how much money you make, you might still be rewarded the mental equivalent of minimum wage.

Let me illustrate. I’ll start with an example of two hypothetical people.

The first is John.

John usually works between 70 and 80 hour weeks for an investment banking firm in a big city. Last year John made over half a million dollars. For Christmas he took his girlfriend to a 5 star hotel in the French Alps. John’s good at what he does, but it doesn’t feel like a challenge to him. And though he doesn’t like to admit it, he hasn’t enjoyed it in a long time. John’s true passion is playing the guitar – but last time he picked it up was over a year ago.

The second is Jim.

Jim works a 40 hour week as a primary school teacher in a small town near the beach. Last year Jim made $40000. For Christmas he had a quiet lunch at home with his family. Jim’s true passion isn’t teaching, but every once in a while a student will say or do something that leaves him smiling for days. His passion is surfing, and he gets to do so at 6am every morning, and sometimes after work as well.

So who has the better salary?

John. He makes significantly more money in relation to his time.

Who has the better psychological salary?

By which I mean, who reaps the most psychological benefits as a reward for their work.

The answer is probably Jim. He has far more free time and gets to do something he loves every day.

“We might have been so busy for such a long time, that we never even found out what that purpose is.”

Many of us feel like we might not be in jobs that are in line with what we feel is our greater purpose. We might have been so busy for such a long time, that we never even found out what that purpose is.

We all need to earn enough money to keep food on the table. But at some point we get trapped into believing money is the end goal. It’s not our fault. It’s ingrained in our language. Take the phrase “he earns a good living” for example. What this means is, “he makes a lot of money.” Not “he’s living well” – which could mean he’s happy, or healthy, or fulfilled. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s financially wealthy. Which leads us to the big question.  

What makes a life worth living?

Modern psychology is an interesting field. We spent the first hundred years trying to better understand mental illness, and only the last twenty focusing on mental health. Fortunately, the Positive Psychology movement has now summarized a wealth of research that reaches from traditional psychological or neurological studies, to tenets of ancient religions and philosophies, in order to bring us a clearer framework for what constitutes a life worth living.

The research has broadly spanned three areas, all of which are important. Firstly, the pleasant life, also known as the life of enjoyment, is all about how you reach peak experiences of positive emotions. Secondly, the good life, where we are engaged in our work and activities, feel confident and challenged, and frequently reach what is known as a flow state. Finally, we have the meaningful life. This is how we derive a sense of meaning from contributing to something larger than us, that we personally feel has value in the world.

If your work is not providing you enough pleasure, engagement or meaning, then you’re not being paid the psychological salary you deserve.

Can money really buy happiness?

Everyone knows the old phrase ‘money can’t buy happiness,’ but most people don’t truly believe it. And even fewer truly live by it. The saying, at least 200 years old, first appeared in 1792 in William and Mary College Quarterly. But does it hold any merit?

The research on the ability of money to buy happiness is pretty consistent. As psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, money can have a significant positive influence on your happiness if you are poor and are struggling to meet basic needs. But once you reach the middle class, the effect becomes almost non-existent.

One study found that we overestimate the impact that wealth will have on our happiness by around 100% – i.e. the amount of happiness we think we will get from money is only about half what we really do.

However, money can make you happier if you spend it on the right experiences, such as on other people. It would seem then that money can only make you happy to the extent that it helps you achievement a pleasant, good, or meaningful life.

So how do you determine your psychological salary?

Well, really that’s up to you. You have to know yourself and what you want well enough to know if your career will get you there.

“You’re always trading time for unexplored opportunity.”

That isn’t a job for this article, but as a start, think hard about the trade-offs you are making when you choose a certain lifestyle. With a job you are never simply trading time for money. You’re always trading time for unexplored opportunity. Being rewarded with fame will take away your privacy, a new challenge may leave you with more anxiety, wealth may alienate you from your friends and a $50,000 raise in salary may steal 750 extra hours a year that you could have been spending with your kids.

I’m not suggesting you quit your job because it’s not exactly what you want. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t judge its value solely on finance alone. A lot of people choose a stable career based on the assumption that it will give them good income.

What you want is a good outcome. How can you work in a way that gives you the life that you want? What are the things that matter to you? Because if it’s not status or material wealth, you shouldn’t be working somewhere you hate, to quote Tyler Durden, to buy things you don’t need for people you don’t like.

Forget earning a good living. Go and figure out how you can earn a good life.