Jim Penman on the subject of happiness

Most of us probably don’t believe we need a formal definition of happiness; we know it when we feel it, and we often use the term to describe a range of positive emotions, including joy, pride, contentment, and gratitude.

But to understand the causes and effects of happiness, researchers first need to define it. Many of them use the term interchangeably with “subjective well-being,” which they measure by simply asking people to report how satisfied they feel with their own lives and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing.

A few weeks ago, we interviewed Jim Penman, the CEO  and Founder of Jim’s Group on what he thought was the key to happiness. Here are some excerpts from our interview.

People might, on the outside of it all, think Jim’s a rich man… I see it all the time because obviously, I look at a lot of social comments and they say, “Jim’s this rich man and he doesn’t…” You know, whatever. But are you happy? And what, to you, is happiness?

Well, first answer is yes. I would say I’m one of the happiest, most happy, most fortunate men, human beings on Earth right now. But people’s idea of what makes people happy is very badly skewed. And I read a lot of books on happiness. It’s one of my favorite subjects, is to know what makes people happy. A lot of the literature on social psychology and all kinds of things on happiness. One of the most pernicious myths is the idea that making money is what makes you happy. Now I have a very close friend whose brother committed suicide just last year. And this was an immensely wealthy man, far wealthier than I am, killed himself out of despair. And there’s so many stories like that, of people who are enormously wealthy whose lives are barren and meaningless and empty. So first of all, money. Now money does bring happiness, but only up to about 80,000 dollars a year.

Because if you’re struggling, if you’re barely able to pay your rent or buy your food and stuff, there’s no doubt that makes people very unhappy. But once you’ve reached about the average Australian income, an extra amount of money makes surprisingly little difference to your life satisfaction at all. And I can see for myself that over the years, my financial fortunes have ebbed and flowed, mostly they’ve gotten better of course, but I’ve had some very bad times. But it doesn’t have a lot to do, my own level of happiness has not a lot to do with my gross level of income.

But secondly too, what you do with your money makes a great deal difference. Now, there’s actually different ways to spend the money. Some of them are really bad, some of them have some benefit and some of them are incredibly good. The worst way to spend your money is on competitive display. This is based on the psychological literature. If you are getting yourself a new car or a bigger house or impressing people, or branded clothes. I mean, I’m wearing branded clothes but they’re Jim’s uniform.

They (uniforms) don’t cost a lot. But expensive clothes, that is the sort of thing that makes you want to compete with somebody else, so I’m richer than you, I’m better than you. The trouble with that is the zero sum game because then they go and buy a better car, a better house than you, and you.

So let’s talk about you with your happiness and how you do that. So what do you do in terms of giving away? 

I basically go by the the Gates Foundation principle. And I deeply admire Bill Gates, what he’s done. In fact, my whole view of Microsoft completely changed when he set that foundation up because what he does, what the Gates Foundation does is it looks at where the money can do the most good. And that’s not what tugs at the heart, it’s where rationality says, “I can save the most lives and make the most difference.” So they do a lot of work with, say, vaccinations and kids in third world countries. I mean the Gates Foundation has probably saved millions of lives already. I mean, that guy is one of the greatest benefactors in all of history, what they’ve done. So I deeply admire that kind of principle.

Most of us probably don’t believe we need a formal definition of happiness; we know it when we feel it, and we often use the term to describe a range of positive emotions, including joy, pride, contentment, and gratitude.

But to understand the causes and effects of happiness, researchers first need to define it. Many of them use the term interchangeably with “subjective well-being,” which they measure by simply asking people to report how satisfied they feel with their own lives and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing.

So what do you do with money?

So what do I do with my money? Well again, I actually say no to most requests. People are always asking me to sponsor worthy causes against cancer and all kinds of really great causes. My absolute answer is no because I have two charities only, you might say. The first is that I tithe. As a Christian, it’s a biblical principle so I tithe. There’s no question about it, support my local church. 10% of my personal income income.

Can you shed some light on the funding you do for research?

Sure. The simple reason for that is because I developed a theory about human society, which suggests that enormous amount of human suffering and misery, including not only mental illness, which I’d love to talk about another time, but also even issues such as poverty, drug addiction, those kinds of issues could be solved if we understood the basis of character and we can change them. And my theory gives me some very interesting ideas about the way it could be done. We’ve actually proved this with rats to a certain extent, and we’ve got some treatments that are really close to coming to. So in a sense, there’s nothing remotely as useful I could do with my money as to fund my research. So I’m quite happy to say no to everything else. And as I said, people again think I’m a total Scrooge and I’ve got no heart. I really don’t mind. God gave me considerable resources, I’m going to use them in the best possible way.

You like Teslas, but you won’t buy one because they’re too expensive. I remember you telling me that. Can you elaborate a bit on this?

Yeah, I like the idea of an electric car because I think it’s got good conservation values and I believe in renewable resources and stuff. I think we’ve got to stop destroying the environment and so forth. So I believe in that kind of stuff. So personally, I’d love to own an electric car once it becomes affordable. I’d love generate my own power so I’d never have to pay for electricity. That would be certainly great.

You have a fairly middle class lifestyle, would you can to share with our readers a bit more on that?

Yes, we live a fairly normal middle class lifestyle, actually. But it’s also because I don’t want my children to be destroyed by wealth. And what you often see is that kids from privileged backgrounds become very spoiled and it’s too easy for them. Well, I’ve made it clear to my kids, we’ll give you a bit of help with buying a house but apart from that, you’re on your own. Money that I create in the end goes for the research. And that’s because the research is good, but also because I don’t want them to be destroyed. And there’s so many stories about families that are wealthy, that the kids just become useless, at least after the first generation or so. I don’t want that for my children. It’s no gift to them.

What’s the number one thing that makes you the most happiest? I know you love your family and you’ve obviously got a great, loving wife. So what’s the number one thing that makes you the most happiest? Is it your research or is it your family?

It’s my wife. Imagine being married to your perfect love. You found your perfect love of your life and even a honeymoon, and it’s just glorious. She is the most beautiful, the most best woman on earth. You just love to look at her, touch her, it’s amazing. You just, your heart sings with joy when you see her and she just makes the whole life bright. Imagine if you felt that way after 18 years. That’s what I’ve got. And I don’t even understand how it can happen because I’ve got three foul marriages. I must be incredibly obnoxious that three women couldn’t stand to live with me. And yet, I’ve got this amazing, amazing marriage. That is number one.

Would you care to share a little bit about your kids?

And after that, I’ve got great kids. I love my kids dearly. I just get so much joy from them. I don’t find much negatives about kids at all, I never did. The only big negative is being, my youngest is 10 and I wish we had more, but I love my kids. I have a great business. I love Jim’s. It’s fascinating, it’s interesting and it’s got a sense of purpose because I’m out there helping thousands of families. And that’s what drives me as much as anything. I don’t ever think much about the bottom line. It’s going to be there but my focus is how can I make my franchisees happier and more successful? That’s there. And of course, my overwhelming purpose is my research.

After all that you have achieved, whats your purpose of life ?

It’s an interesting life but it’s also a purposeful life. Even with kids. I love my kids, but I also want them to be the best people they can be. And there’s a purpose to that. And that’s what a lot of the research shows, actually. It’s whether you enjoy what you do, which I do, but also whether there is meaning behind it. And sometimes, there’s a compromise between the two. So people who’ve aren’t very fond of, would rather do something else than spend time with their kids, they actually discipline themselves to spend time with their kids. And because that gives them a sense of purpose and meaning in their life, they’re actually happier for doing it even though they’d rather be out there, say, drinking at the local pub. Now, my advantage is that the things that I should do, which is working on my research and a business and with my kids, I love doing anyway.

In fact, one of the times my children were watching something on television and they were laughing their heads off. And there was this scene where these parents were arguing about whose time it was to babysit the kid while the other one went out. And they thought that was absolutely hysterical because in our house, what happens if somebody wants to go out, they try and persuade the kids to go with them. So it’s like the opposite. They thought it was so funny because it was the opposite of what they’d seen. But I have a wonderful life. On top of that too, another thing, health. Fitness. I’m not a fanatic, but I like to do at least half hour of vigorous exercise every day. And I also walk as much as possible. I will never ever take the escalator if I can take the stairs. And I run a lot, even just for fun or just around the place. So I keep as fit as I can. Keep my diet under control.

Whats your fitness like, do you enjoy playing sport?

Every day, I do either running or I play squash or I work on my farm or I do something like that. I do something that actually keeps me fit and active. And I try and keep my weight under control. Though I have a struggle with things like chocolate.

Now, do you think, I was going to say so let’s talk about now, gratefulness. I know we’ve talked about this in the past before about gratefulness. Now, do you think a lot of people, this might be a bit off topic, but in Australia are generally grateful or ungrateful? So for me, working in a business, I come from a different background than most but for me, I think if you, you said 80 grand’s the limit, right? So 80 grand for some reason, happiness below, or whatever. I’ve seen a lot of people, I know a lot of people who make an exorbitant amount of money, yet they’re so negative. Everything’s bad, you’d think Australia is the worst place in the world to live in. You turn on talk back radio, Australia is the worst place in the world. Do you think people are generally, in society in general, too ungrateful now these days?

To step back occasionally and to look at what you’ve gotten. Because the way you talked about it then, you can see even your eyes and your face when I talk to you, you can see you’re looking like this and you can see the feeling of happiness coming over you as you’re talking about the things that you’re grateful for in your life.

Yeah. Well, yeah, absolutely. But actually in this case, it comes to something which is an overarching principle, it’s my Christian principles, my Christian belief. And one of the things that we do a lot of is we pray. And when you pray, you give thanks. So every day, multiple times you’re thanking God for your blessings. And I thank God for my wife, for my family, for everything that we enjoy. For health, everything. And I’m always thinking about, always praying about that. So actually overall, behind all these principles, your faith is incredibly important in so many ways. If you looked at the happiest times of my life, actually, it’s in church on Sunday morning with my beautiful wife beside me, just singing praise to God. That’s amazing happiness. I don’t know what, I’ve never tried crack cocaine but it must be something similar.

It stays great. And also, the sense of community. I have a group of wonderful guys that we meet every fortnight and we have dinner together. And we just share our feelings and our thoughts and we pray together and pray for each other. But that that sense of community is really wonderful. And when I go to church, they’re there. So I always go and my wife’s always complaining I spend been too long talking to them and, “Come on, we need to go and get some lunch.”

In all disclosure, I’m not Christian at all. I’m an atheist. And for me, what I actually do is, let’s say we’ll call it the equivalent, I actually in my office, I have a notebook. I come in the morning, I write down three things I’m grateful for, and when I get negative or when I start moaning about something, I actually will open the book and look at it. And whatever that problem is, it always goes away. I think people need to start stepping outside themselves a bit more, when they have a negative problem, get down, think back to what they’re grateful for, write it down what they’re grateful for and just realize how lucky they are. And I think travel as well. I know you don’t like travel, but I think the occasional trip to… I mean, I’m not saying I’m a world traveler by any means, but I’ve been to a few countries and I always love coming home.