The Secret Keyhole: Unlocking the Door to Happiness

In Edinburgh, Scotland, in a section of the city known as the Royal Mile, there is a wonderfully restored medieval dwelling known as the John Knox house.  The house was originally built in the late 1400s.  In the mid-1500s the house was occupied by James Mossman, a well-known and wealthy goldsmith.  Mossman was hired to refashion the crown of Scotland for James V and later became the goldsmith for Mary Queen of Scots.

Mossman, in addition to creating jewelry for royalty, was also a skilled craftsman who refinished much of the inside of the house.  On the third floor of the house is a room protected by a thick oak door.  On the outside of the door is an iron panel and a keyhole.  From the attention Mossman took to defend this room it is logical to conclude that it contained something of great value – most likely the materials of his trade; the gold, silver, and precious stones Mossman used to fashion jewelry for the king, queen and other wealthy clients.

False Keyhole II

The keyhole and lock on the heavy door look fairly ordinary but Mossman had designed them in a way that made it impossible to gain entry into the room by picking the lock behind the keyhole.  How was Mossman so confident that no thief or locksmith, no matter how skilled, could ever open the door and gain access to the hidden treasures it protected by manipulating the lock behind the exposed keyhole? 

Simple, really.  The lock behind the keyhole is not the lock that controls the door.  It is a dummy keyhole.  A trap.  A deception.  A decorative iron bar a couple of inches to the left conceals another keyhole which provides access to the real lock.  As long as a would-be thief’s attention, energy, and skill are directed on the lock behind the dummy keyhole he has no hope of gaining access to the treasure.

False Keyhole

The Door to Happiness

For our purposes let’s imagine the treasure protected by the cleverly designed door is not gold, silver, and precious jewels, but something much more valuable – happiness.  How can we gain access to this most desired of all treasures?

The world tells us the way to happiness is through money and material possessions but those who already have these things tell us otherwise.  Academic studies concur.  Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, after studying the academic literature on the topic, stated “We think money will bring us lots of happiness for long time, and actually it brings us a little happiness for a short time.” 

Money is like the visible keyhole on the door protecting Mossman’s vault.  It appears to be the solution to our problem but as long as we focus all of our attention on it we have no hope of gaining access to the treasure.  Like the keyhole, money is a trap – a cleverly marketed deception.      

The Hidden Keyhole

If money won’t open the door to happiness, what will?  The only hope we have is to change our way of thinking.  We must pry our attention off the obvious but incorrect solution staring us in the face and start searching for the hidden keyhole. 

Ron Carson, in his book The Sustainable Edge, presents an alternative to money as the key to happiness which he calls true wealth and which he defines as “all that we have that money cannot buy and death cannot take away.” 

I like to think of the concealed keyhole in this manner.  In order to gain happiness we have to quit trying to pick the money lock and begin searching for the cleverly disguised true wealth keyhole. 

Even after finding the concealed keyhole the door won’t be easy to open.  Research has shown the following ten tools are useful in picking the true wealth lock on the door to happiness:

  • Enough Money – Money does play a role in happiness, just not the dominate role we expect.  For the truly poor more money increases happiness substantially.  You are more likely to be happy if you have enough money to satisfy your needs and at least an occasional want.  Beyond that more money does little to increase happiness.  As Warren Buffett says, “Money won’t make you happy, but neither will poverty.”    
  • Security – Those with at least some degree of financial security are happier than those who constantly worry and struggle.  Money can buy a degree of happiness, but only if you save it.  
  • Health – It’s difficult to be happy with poor health.  To increase your chances for happiness make the changes necessary to preserve, maintain, and reclaim your health.   
  • Free Time – Enough free time to pursue your passions and develop your talents makes life more meaningful, rich, and enjoyable. 
  • Relationships – It is tough to be lonely and happy.  Putting time and effort into your most important relationships is vital if you wish to open the door to happiness. 
  • Purpose – Philosopher Daniel Dennett states that the secret to happiness is to, “Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” 
  • Forgiveness – Forgiveness allows us to put the past behind us and move on to a brighter future. 
  • Optimism – Someone once said, “People who wonder whether the glass is half-empty or half-full miss the point.  The glass is refillable.”  Optimists recognize this and are happier because of it.
  • Gratitude – Author Melody Beattie wrote, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns whatever we have into enough, and more…Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
  • Service – Famed German theologian, musician, physician, and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer once stated, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” 

The list above makes it clear that opening the door of happiness through the true wealth keyhole is not easy.  In fact, in a lot of ways it is more difficult and complicated than simply trying to obtain money and possessions.  It does, however, have one clear advantage.  It actually has a chance of working! 

Live a Meaningful Story  

I love the perspective on this provided by Donald Miller in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years:

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers.  You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen…But we spend our lives actually living those stories, and expect our lives to be meaningful.  The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.” 

A story about obtaining a Volvo is not a story worth telling and a life about obtaining money and possessions is not a story worth living.  Putting all of our focus on money squanders the incredible opportunities life provides.  In the end, opening the door to happiness might not be that complicated after all – just make your life a meaningful story.  There is no better time than today to start editing your screenplay!


Note: I read the story about James Mossman’s cleverly concealed keyhole in the book The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith by Terryl and Fiona Givens.  The pictures also came from this book.

  9 comments for “The Secret Keyhole: Unlocking the Door to Happiness

  1. PhysicianOnFIRE
    September 7, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    I love the hidden keyhole. It’s incredible that the building and door still exist after 6 centuries.

    I think you’re on to something with the analogy. Money is a tool, but happiness is the goal.


  2. zeejaythorne
    September 8, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    I love ancient trickery (and hardware ) that persists. I think you are absolutely right that having time to pursue passions matters a great deal for a person’s happiness.

  3. September 14, 2016 at 5:05 am

    Good post. Most of us are searching for the hidden keyhole, while some have lost the keys that have been gifted to them!

  4. September 14, 2016 at 9:13 am

    Great analogy using the hidden keyhole. True Wealth is the goal, Money is only one of the means. Great article, and rewarded by your RockStar Finance selection as today’s best article! Congrats!!

  5. moneycounselor
    September 14, 2016 at 9:16 am

    Another home run. Thanks for writing!

  6. September 14, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Rockstar made a great pick today – thanks for this interesting post. I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion regarding a movie about a working towards a Volvo. We can do so much better!

  7. September 19, 2016 at 11:00 am

    This is such a great analogy, and some terrific writing as well, Brent! Striking the balance between money & happiness can be tricky. It’s very easy to get ‘gold fever’ and keep chasing that dollar. Thanks for the story and reminder that money isn’t the source of our happiness.

  8. Brent Esplin
    September 19, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks for the compliments. Glad everyone enjoyed it.

Leave a Reply