Growing a Happy Tree
People aren’t born happy. There is no known gene for happiness. Happiness is often the result of small, daily activities compounded over time. Imagine your happiness is a sapling and you want it to grow into a strong, beautiful tree. How would you care for it? The key is to always take care of the roots. Neglect the roots and your tree dies. Neglect your roots and you will not be happy, ever. Our most important task is to identify the “roots” of our happy tree and nurture them daily.
These activities/roots include:
- Reflect on past, think purposely about today
- Be in the present – that is where life is experienced
- Appreciate the simple things in life
- Practice gratitude
- Be actively engaged in good works
Happiness comes from solving the “right” problems
The most important word in this sentence is “solving”. Solving is a verb, an activity that requires the seeking of answers to identified problems. Guess what, problems are always going to be present in life, no matter how much money you have. The key is to identify and accept what problems are worth solving in the first place. More on that in a minute.
Does money buy happiness? Yes and no. Researchers have found that money can increase happiness for individuals living in poverty. However, once we are above the poverty level, money doesn’t do much to promote happiness.
Pleasure vs. Happiness
Sometimes we confuse pleasure for happiness. Pleasure is often an intense sensation and short term in nature. Pleasure does not fulfill us; we want more of it. Many people seek to find happiness through material goods or increased riches. While a new toy or increased riches may provide a temporary high (pleasure), they do not result in happiness.
Happiness is contentment and is more enduring. Happiness is fulfilling. We can be happy during periods of pleasureful sensations or painful trials. Happiness is not a derivative of circumstance. Circumstances can make it easier or more difficult to be happy, but they do not dictate the level of contentment we must feel in our lives.
Common Pitfalls to Happiness
Comparison is one of the greatest detractors to happiness. When we compare ourselves to others, there are two outcomes: we feel worse about ourselves, or we put others down to temporarily lift ourselves up. Neither outcome promotes happiness and plays on ones emotions. The social and financial media showcases this detractor on a regular basis.
Another pitfall to happiness is boredom. When we are bored and let our mind wander, they tend to go to negative, unhappy thoughts. This isn’t to say that being alone or having a “me” day is bad. In fact, having purposeful thoughts and reflection are contributors to happiness. It’s all about controlling our thoughts.
Misplaced responsibility might be one of the trickier detractors to happiness. Crappy things happen to people all the time that can impede happiness, sometimes crappy things are selfinflicted from one’s own actions, sometimes it comes from other sources, such as people’s actions toward them. Either way, how a person perceives and chooses to respond is still their responsibility. Those that tend be in denial or prefer to shift blame away from themselves tend to be less happy in this world.
Happiness is defined by the quality of the problems you want in your life
I often ask clients what would make them happy in the future and I often hear something like, “I would be happy if I could be free to do what I want, to travel, spend more time with loved ones, start a second career, volunteer more, etc.” All of these answers are good goals, but it often doesn’t mean anything, yet. In order for it to have meaning, one must grasp and take the responsibility for it with both hands.
Maybe there are better questions when it comes to investing, financial planning, and happiness. The “happy” question sets us up for potential trouble because it allows our emotions to focus on the wrong things. Most people identify the emotion of happiness as a destination, which in fact, it never is. Happiness isn’t static, it likes to move, over and over again. Quoting Mark Manson, “Because happiness requires struggle, it grows from problems.” and “Real, serious, lifelong fulfillment and meaning have to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles.”
What are you willing to be responsible for? What pain is worth the struggle?
As advisors, we should help our clients recognize the “struggles” (i.e. their roots) they want to be responsible for. Doing so helps prepare them to expect, accept, and, eventually, overcome the challenges of these responsibilities. As an advocate of those challenges, I can help them focus on fighting the good fight. It is also a terrific way to understand what their most important values are.
Examples of financial pain/struggles worth fighting for (some of which are out of one’s control but must be dealt with) would include:
- The struggle of accepting the realities of owning stocks and that the market owes you nothing
- Earning income in a low interest rate environment
- The ability to keep up with inflation over time
- Overcoming damaging investor behavior biases; such as the fear of loss or the pain of uncertainty
- Remaining convicted to your plan by practicing patience
- Tuning out the financial media, recognize what is “noise” and what is not
- Struggle of deciding how to pass down assets to heirs
- The emotional and financial challenges of selling a business
Examples of pain/struggles we don’t want (meaning we have the ability to control/get help with addressing these issues) would be:
- The pain of high and unnecessary fees
- Pain of adverse income or estate tax consequences
- Poor advisor-client communications
- Poor goals and/or time horizons that don’t match investment allocation objectives
- Inadequate insurance plans that leave loved ones unprepared
- Non-transparent investment strategies
- Overspending during retirement years
These are all the areas that we can choose to have more control over, thus greatly reducing the likelihood of ongoing and unnecessary pain points. Pick your pain points carefully and focus all of your attention on the ones that matter most. Your future happy tree will thank you.
Call me to discuss your pain points and you will learn more about how we can help you avoid the train wrecks you don’t see coming.
Phil E. Gose, AAMS