Make It

I once got a $2 million bonus — and I was never more miserable

Getting a job on Wall Street was the first of like ten boxes I thought I needed to check in order to be happy. The last box — the finish line — was to make a "stick," which means earn one million dollars in a year.

A decade into my career I was sitting on the couch, alone, in my 2,700 square-foot Tribeca apartment. It was just after Christmas and I had received a $2 million bonus. I was thinking to myself, I got the girl, the home, the social status, the job title and tons of power. But if I can just make three million dollars next year … then I'll be happy.

I sought happiness like a crack addict in search of his next rock. I constantly craved for my next hit of happiness.

I did it all — I produced an up-and-coming rapper, bought a race horse and wrote and executive produced two short films. I invested in Fatburger, a casual dining burger joint, bought a loft in the city and a 100-year old home on the North Shore of Long Island. All of which I thought would make me happy.

After making $2 million, I thought I was on the one-yard line — I was so close. Only in looking back do I realize how miserable I was. No matter how much money, experiences and material things I accumulated—it was never going to be enough.


It's so cliché to say "money can't buy happiness." When I used to hear people say this, I wanted to punch them. I thought: Anyone who would make such a claim clearly has never had real money. For sure, money makes things easier. But for me, it never actually made me happy. It was more like brief spurts of euphoria that quickly flamed out.

“I even went fishing in Costa Rica and caught a giant sailfish – a status symbol of a man who had everything! I was happy for like five seconds.” – Turney Duff
“I even went fishing in Costa Rica and caught a giant sailfish – a status symbol of a man who had everything! I was happy for like five seconds.” – Turney Duff

My struggles with alcoholism and cocaine addiction are well documented, but happiness was just another substance I wanted to abuse.

Apparently somewhere along the way I confused happiness with pleasure. One night a few years after my second rehab, I'd gotten everything back, including a big book deal from Random House, but I still wasn't happy. So I decide to search for Thomas Jefferson on my computer. I want to understand the true meaning of "The Pursuit of Happiness." Here's what I learned: Back then, happiness meant honor, integrity and how you lived your life. On that day I declared serenity my goal, and ironically, I've never been happier.

It's interesting how things turn out. I have nowhere close to the money I once had, but yet, I'm much happier. I stopped chasing it. My priorities today are 1) Stay sober, 2) Be the best dad I can be and 3) Work on my writing career. After that, it's just details.

Here are my four pillars for maintaining happiness:

Stop with the if/then. If I get X then I'll feel Y. I've made this mistake my entire life. You can plug in anything for X – job, relationship, a million dollars. In practice, it's a difficult thing for me to implement, but I always try to never let external events or things predict future emotions.

Choose happiness. I try to never make happiness my goal because I firmly believe that happiness is a choice. So, whatever I'm doing – moving forward or even backward – I can always choose to be happy.

Gratitude. The practice of expressing daily gratitude is like finding twenty bucks in your pocket. You always had the money, but you just didn't realize it. It's paramount to always seek out and value what you already have. In my former life, I got everything that I ever wanted, but it still wasn't enough. I was never able to be truly grateful. But now, with much less, I feel like I have infinitely more.

Help other people. I'm not exactly sure why this works, but it does — it's magic. Whenever I'm upset, sad or living inside of my head, I try and help someone else. It allows me to forget about myself for a while and that's when things get better.

My biggest fear when I set out to achieve my four pillars of happiness was that I thought it would make me soft. I'd lose the grit that helped me be successful in the past. But I found that it had just the opposite effect: I'm just as driven – if not more – than my former self. Only now, I'm happy, too.

Commentary by Turney Duff, a former trader at the hedge fund Galleon Group. Duff chronicled the spectacular rise and fall of his career on Wall Street in the book, "The Buy Side." He is a commentator on CNBC's "Filthy Rich Guide" and a consultant on the Showtime show, "Billions," starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. Follow him on Twitter @turneyduff.

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