“Money Can’t Cover Up or Compensate for Other Things in Your Life That Aren’t Working.”

Interview: Terry McMillan.

Terry McMillan is the beloved novelist whose bestselling novels (some of which were also turned into big movies) include Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back — and most recently, Getting to Happy. Of course, how could I resist a novel called “Getting to happy?”

Terry has done a huge amount of thinking about the elements of a happy life. Her novels explore this question through fiction, and I thought it would be fascinating to hear her views in non-fiction form.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Terry: Taking long walks without headphones.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That no one else can give it to you.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Being too busy, such that I find myself diluted, and thus, unable to give my undivided attention to things that I want to give my undivided attention to.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself “There is only love.”)
We all fall down. But it’s how you get back up that counts.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?

I watch something stupid on TV or go see a movie about folks whose problems are way deeper than what I’m experiencing. Or, sometimes, I just allow myself to feel blue. Because it doesn’t last.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
A lot of people I know to be the happiest are those who know what lifts their skirt and subscribe to it regardless of what others think. Those I find to be the least happy are those who don’t accept much responsibility for what they do, and instead, are waiting for someone to rescue them.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
How can you feel the same level of happiness? I don’t think that’s possible. And even if it were, I wouldn’t want to because it would be redundant. I like things that exhilarate me, things I didn’t expect to: a satisfying ending of a good book; an unexpected smile from a baby I don’t know; when I do what I say I’m going to do (exercise and can see the results!), and watching what makes other people scream with delight makes me feel it, too. I was miserable and depressed for almost three years while going through a very public divorce. Ultimately, I got tired hating my ex-husband because I realized bitterness and anger was wearing me out. I let it go, forgave him, and got my center back. Started to recognize myself again. The one I liked.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I try to pay attention to things that bring me down. Including people. I either avoid them/it and if it’s too hard, distance myself from them, and stop making excuses for the things I do I know aren’t in my best interest. Then repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Being rich. It’s not a panacea, for lack of a better cliché. Money can’t cover up nor compensate for other things in your life that aren’t working. However, I would not want to be without any. I could also say being a bestselling author hasn’t made me happy, either. I’m proud, and delighted that so many people enjoy my work, but the actual writing is what has brought me the most joy.

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  • Adam

    From personal experience, I disagree with the statement “Money can’t cover up nor compensate for other things in your life that aren’t working.” I agree that money is not a panacea and it can’t fix everything, but if your job is killing you, money can buy you a chance to change careers. If your health is bad, money can buy you a nutritionist, a personal chef, a personal trainer, etc. to get your health improving. If your relationship isn’t working because you’re not spending quality time together, money can pay for a weekend getaway.

    Money is simply a tool. It is a certain kind of power and freedom. It can be used to make you healthier and happier and it can be used to make you sicker in every way. It totally depends on what you do with it.

    • jenny_o

      I agree.

      • jenny_o

        I think I should clarify my comment as its meaning depends on its proximity to Adam’s comment, and the order of comments has changed somewhat.

        I agree with Adam AND with Terry McMillan. Money by itself cannot make up for problems, but it can help solve problems at times.

    • Kris10

      Alec Baldwin’s character on “30 Rock” last night said “Money can’t buy happiness. Money IS happiness.” LOL! I agree.

  • Duanelarkins

    This is a great article! It immediately reminded me of this inspirational speech that changed my life! Check it out and let me know what you think!

  • The headline caught my eye, that money can’t cover up if other things aren’t working. I just went thru a rough time with a job that was stressful. I made lots of money, but it couldn’t make up for my loss of sanity! Luckily I was able to take a leave from that job and spend some time healing and fixing some stinkin’ thinkin’!

    I like what you had to say about the least happy people waiting around for someone else to help them!


  • Vnordstrom

    As someone (self employed, construction) who has been living on half our normal income for a couple years now? While still scrounging to come up with the $1700 a month for health insurance? I would love to have the chance to see what money can’t make up for, lol.

    Lack of income is a serious source of stress, even when you have a great life. Val

    • Breathejustbreathe

      I agree. The difference between not having enough money and having a little more than needed is huge. I’ve been in both places. Any little unexpected expense feels catastrophic if you don’t have enough money. Life becomes this field of land mines because you can’t afford to pay for any missteps. I remember weeping for hours when I lost some library books and had to come up with the fifty dollars to replace them. Only in the last three years have I made a modestly decent salary. Now, if I lose a library book, I have the luxury of being annoyed instead of being in anguish. I still can’t afford to lose, say, 20 books but losing one will be a minor blip. And I am so grateful for that.

  • Interesting interview. It sounds like she really gets a lot out of being in the moment – which is great advice for all of us.

  • I agree with Val and Adam. If you have lots of money, that alone won’t make you happy. But if you truly don’t have enough money to cover the basic bills, that fact can detract from your ability to focus on things that make you happy. It’s a barrier, one that does have a door you can get through with some intention, but a barrier nonetheless.

    I find it interesting that the people who talk about money not bringing happiness are usually the ones with money.

    • gretchenrubin

      Happiness, like health, features into happiness mostly in the negative. NOT
      having it is a big challenge for happiness, but once you have it, it’s easy
      to take it for granted; it doesn’t give as much of a boost as it does give a

      • The problem with money is that no matter how much you have, it’s easy to think you need just a little bit more. Or, you raise your living standard such that you have the same money woes as someone with far less money–for example, think of multi-millionaire Hollywood stars with financial troubles.

        By the way, am I the only one who was reading the answer to the sixth question and wondering if “lift their skirt” was supposed to be “lift their spirit”?

        • I totally agree with you, so many people want more than they have and that is why nobody will ever have enough money.

  • kakleeman

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I love and highly respect the work of Terry McMillan.

    But…one thing really threw me off in this interview. When you asked, “Do you work on being happier? If so, how?” Terry’s first respone was, “I try to pay attention to things that bring me down.”

    Now, I understand that she explains what she means in her response, but wouldn’t it still be easier and HAPPIER to focus on things that bring us up?

    I have it painted in my thoughts and mind to think positive things. I think if I focused on things that brought me down, it would make me less happy. “An affirmative thought is 100 times more powerful than a negative one.”

    • jenny_o

      kakleeman, I understand what you are saying, but if we focus ONLY on the positive things, we may miss something that is detracting from our happiness and therefore never deal with it. My interpretation was slightly different from yours, I think; I heard Ms McMillan saying that she keeps her radar tuned to things that are out of sync with her happiness so that she can be sure to resolve them. The result would be more happiness in the long run.

      • kakleeman

        Yes…I like that. Thank you for sharing those thoughts! 🙂

  • I really liked this. I too often feel diluted and spread too thin. I think happiness comes from a little less activity and a little more focus, at least for me.

  • Mary from Oakland

    As Thornton Wilder so aptly said in The Matchmaker:

    “The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous and can shatter the world; and the difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight, and that, also, can shatter the world.”

    Of course, he goes on with one of the most memorable (if not quite as apropos) lines: “Money – pardon my expression – money is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”

    Ahhh – lovely play. If you’ve only seen Hello Dolly (lovely in its own right), read or see the play. So rich in language, so beautiful. And if one’s doing a lot of thinking about money – it fits right in there…

  • Yes, I do agree that being to Busy can sometimes stand in the way of Happiness.

    Some time ago on my Travel Blog I wrote
    about a book titled:

    ‘The Lazy Way to Success’

    Because of that book I learned to appriciate the value of relaxation. Most of my best ideas come when I feel

    All the Best,
    To your Happy Inspiration,

  • I read “Getting to Happy” last month … it was good.