The Key to Happiness: A Case Study

Photo: Nora Dunn

What constitutes happiness? Surely it is not correlated to the number of 0’s in our bank accounts. Is it then the level of comfort we live in? Our friends and family? A satisfying career? Or is it an individual choice, based on satisfying nothing more than life’s basic necessities?


Our case study describes two people with very different lives. Please read these descriptions with an aim to determine who is happier of the two. There is no right or wrong answer, and this is not a trick question.



She has it all. She lives in a beautiful and trendy condo in one of the most sought-after areas in town. Her place is filled with beautiful and funky furniture, her stainless steel kitchen has all the gadgets, and she has more deck space behind the unit than she knows what to do with.

She has an amazing job, and makes well over $100,000/year. In fact, with each year she has been in this job, the easier it has become, the less she has had to work, and the more money she has made; a pattern with a possible plateau but no real end in sight.

She drives a sportscar, and has all the toys she wishes for, including a motorcycle and skydiving gear among other expensive play-things. When she wants lobster, she eats lobster.

Her social life is very active, and her boyfriend adores her.



She has almost nothing. A few outfits, some toiletries, and her laptop make up her worldly belongings. She doesn’t even have a true home, as she wanders from place to place, living mostly in furnished accommodations and often making due with shared facilities and transient friends.

Although she loves her job, it is not exactly a cash cow. She constantly keeps one eye on the budget, employing frugal living techniques to make her dollar stretch as far as it possibly can. Some of her friends who don’t understand her ways call her “cheap”. She prefers the term “frugal”. Her accusers are the same people who buy lunch every day and drink a case of beer every night; they think she is cheap because she packs her lunch and drinks water.

She drives a 20 year old car (out of necessity) that is an eye-sore but which runs well. She refuses to buy toys, and in fact unless she is prepared to fit it into her backpack and carry it, she refuses to buy anything at all.

She loves food though, and finds creative ways to enjoy and stoke her passion for cooking. Although she cannot remember the last time she had lobster, she counts it among her favorite foods.

Her social life is very active, and her boyfriend adores her.


Who is happier?


Before we explore the answer to this question, let us first determine the basic necessities of life (in no particular order):

  • water & food
  • shelter
  • social activity and stimulation
  • money


Ultimately our needs boil down to the above four items. We need to eat, we need a place to sleep, we (most of us at least) require social interaction to stay sharp, and we need money to support ourselves (in the developed world anyway, and arguably everywhere). While some people might argue the primal needs for one or two of these items, most of us would agree that with these four building blocks in place, we can create a happy life for ourselves.


Both people in the scenario above have all of the above items. They obviously both eat, and they both have active social and romantic lives. Although Person A has a considerably more elaborate and luxurious home as a shelter, Person B has what she needs. And consistent with the discrepancies, Person A obviously has more money than Person B, with a freedom to spend it at will. Does that make Person A happier though? On the surface it would appear that at least Person A would feel less stress about her financial matters than Person B. But is this true?


Although Person A works incrementally less and makes more money each year, she is married to her career and on some days would say she feels trapped by it; there is no turning the switch off or leaving work at the office for her. She is financially rewarded for her efforts, yet she has a nagging voice in the back of her head that insists she is missing out on something bigger, something deeper, just something.


And although Person B seems consumed by her desire to scrimp and save money, she also does not work too hard. She enjoys every minute of what she does, and continues to call the shots. She makes enough money to support herself comfortably (albeit frugally), consistently reach her goals, and she manages to “work to live” instead of “live to work”.


So who is happier? Both have it all, in their own ways. Both are reaching their goals, and both have financial yins and yangs inside of them. We all want more money, but then again there seems to be a price tag that comes along with a higher income; it is a higher cost of living. The more your salary increases, the more your expenses do too, without you even noticing it.


Harping on the adage about money not leading to happiness is overdone. Both Person A and Person B have all the ingredients for success and happiness. Their basic needs are met, and everything else is simply for comfort or entertainment. Is a child with a Nintendo Wii really happier than a child in a developing country with nothing more than a wheelbarrow to play with? No, of course not.


So instead of determining who is happier in the above scenario, it may be more constructive for you to determine which person YOU would prefer to be. You may not even need to change anything significant about your life; it may simply be a shift in perspective and action that is required. Once all of life’s basic necessities are met, the rest is truly superfluous.


I am both of these people. I made my choice to become Person B, and I happily live by it every day. What will it take for you to find – and use – your own key to happiness?



No votes yet
Your rating: None

Disclaimer: The links and mentions on this site may be affiliate links. But they do not affect the actual opinions and recommendations of the authors.

Wise Bread is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Guest's picture

Whatever my pecuniary circumstances may be, I don't want to "make due" with transient friends. My friendships are what I value most. I hope that no amazing job, boyfriend, or adventure would compel me to flake out on my friends.

Guest's picture

I don't think she is flaky. She has simply changed, and her priorities have changed along with her. Everyone must make these adjustments along the road to find what is going to work best for them. I have been person A and person B. Now I suppose that I am person C. Retirement is another situation entirely for some.

Many of us find that we have been programmed all our lives to do things a certain way. I think that Nora decided she was not living her life according to HER wishes. I admire her courage and intelligence.

Guest's picture

Informative and useful article - life's basic understandings, need to be affirmative and look the positive aspect or life or we are already doomed.

Guest's picture

Good story, Nora. It's especially compelling because you've seen both sides.

Guest's picture
Becky Murphy

It's articles like this that remind me about the blessings that I have in my life. I have always been a everchanging and evolving person. I change shells every few years and have felt perfectly comfortable doing so. It is only up until recently that I have been coming down on myself for this behavior. My income has never been steady but I always managed. The stress of the complicated has put me a bit out of balance and I long to be the breezy fly by the seat of my pants me. I think happiness has to be obtained by putting your life in perspective everyday and thanking God for giving you another day to do so.

Guest's picture

What about saving for retirement? How happy will person B be happy when she's living on social security and can barely afford to live? Ugh - I would never want to be in that situation.

Guest's picture

I'd be person A and invest my money rather than spending it. That way I could retire early.

Guest's picture

Like BJLD, I'd just live a frugal lifestyle and throw the rest of the money on the pile. Retire and do whatever I please without a care in the world.

Nora Dunn's picture

Thank you for all the comments; I am enjoying the debate and appreciate every point of view. Here are a few "what ifs" to ponder:

  • What If Person A was saving for retirement all along, and her spending was not at the expense of saving?
  • What If Person B actually had a retirement nest egg set up, invested, growing, and ready for her when she needed it?
  • And lastly, What If Person A lived frugally and saved her money for an eventual retirement, only to not ever see it come to fruition, or to find herself physically incapable of enjoying her retirement dreams? 


Just some food for thought; I would love to get people's thoughts on this.


Guest's picture

this is in line with my theory of contentment. I sense either the dawning of the age we have been waiting on for 40+ years, catalyzed by the current economic crisis(depression) being the transition years for the aquarian time of mankind, yes the age of aquarius, either that or we are a few steps closer to the eve of destruction. Will the Mayan calendar ending in 2012 prove to all that they knew something so far in advance, but were unable to decipher--- a new beginning or in fact the demise of the lifestyle brought to us by the need, not want, as genetically we need to be more than we are. The very genetic makeup/code that enabled us to develop the sciences and technologies, keeps us from sharing the wealth of a world, yet with abundant resources to offer all their basic needs, and offer wants at a level that will bring contentment to such a an overwhelmingly large proportion of the population.

Guest's picture
mrs skellington

I wholeheartedly agree with your opinion that as income grows so do expenses. Suddenly we find things we must have, things that we were previously able to live without, but maybe feel that we "deserve" now that we make more money. There is also a tendency to want to make our wealth visible to others by buying the toys and cars you mentioned. Once we get used to a certain standard of living it's difficult to scale back. We want more and more, but never stop to wonder how much is enough. I applaud you for being able to step off that rollercoaster. What I especially like about your story is the fact that you could still make a ton of money and have a fabo lifestyle if you really wanted to, but you found that it didn't make you any happier.

Guest's picture
mrs skellington

Aw, man. I was hoping more people would comment after me. I wanted to see people's thoughts on this, too. Maybe there are too many As and not enough Bs out there. Bummer.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@ Mrs Skellington - I agree completely with your analysis! Having found myself on the "making more, needing more" merry-go-round without even realizing it was a wake up call. And interestingly I am a frugal person through and a starving artist I was used to being extremely careful about what I spent...I don't know it happened.

As for making wealth visible to others, the real "millionaires" out there aren't usually flashy about their wealth, as I write in this article:

Guest's picture

The times that i had less money in my life, i found that i had less worries too and so i was alot happier. I seemed to have alot more abundance in my life then aswell. I think when we find ourselves too attach to money, the problems begin. Unfortunately we live in a world were wealth and happiness come hand in hand. I would love to see the world function with out all its material possesions and 'wealth'. We'd colapse! We need to look deep with in for our happiness, instead of constantly looking outside of ourselves.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Erica - fancy that...a world where we look internally for happiness instead of it even possible in our society?

Guest's picture
MidSouth Mouth

I applaud and value many of the comments on this blog, and thank you Nora for sharing. I wish to add to the conversation an important aspect, though.

The cultural capital accrued by an readily-employable-in-the-mainstream, educated, English-speaking, (white?), North American, young, able-bodied, (cisgender?) [etc] person is an important underlying ingredient here that needs to be made visible. Although there is some animosity and danger out there in the world, there is also a lot of privilege to fall back upon.

I just offer this as a reminder, since I know all the intelligent folks on this site easily adapt advice to their own situations.


Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

Ah yes, what a great point to bring up. Both Person A and Person B have one more commonality, and that is being born into a life of relative privilege in comparison to how so many others in the world live.

At least we have the choice to decide how we want to live. That is worth far more than anything else.

Guest's picture

nahh carlos is gay.

Guest's picture

carlos gasca found his key to happiness when he came out the closet