How does money figure into a happy life? Behavioral finance expert Brian Portnoy delivers an inspired answer based on the idea that wealth, truly defined, is funded contentment. It is the ability to underwrite a meaningful life.
His latest work, The Geometry of Wealth, bridges the philosophical and practical gap in managing money in our lives.
“Money does buy more happiness when spent wisely, especially when directed toward experiences, others, and time.” -Brian Portnoy
You point out that millions of Americans have not saved a dime for retirement. Why is this? Will this eventually cause a crisis or is this typical and then people catch up?
The lack of retirement preparedness stems from a combination of opportunity and mindset. In the context of real wages for many Americans having not risen in more than a generation, many are barely able to make ends meet, let alone build a nest egg. Beyond that, financial illiteracy is a major problem. As a society we don’t take seriously the need to understand the many facets of saving, spending, and investing. Further, humans are generally wired with biases that undermine smart money decisions. This mix of factors is at the root of the looming retirement crisis in America. Far too many have saved far too little, and there are no obvious solutions that don’t involve quite painful decisions.
“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.” -Epictetus
Your model is in three parts: purpose to priorities to tactics. Part one is purpose, which is not a typical starting point in many financial books. Talk about the importance of purpose in this context.
Let’s step back and ask, “What are we all trying to accomplish here?” I think an answer that mostly everyone would get behind is that we want to be happy; we want to lead a good life. Okay, fine, but how do you do that? It’s obviously a massive question, with countless angles from philosophy and religion and other domains. Money, for better or worse, is an inescapable part of the discussion. There are certain unavoidable practicalities of what we can afford and how those help to underwrite the lives we want to lead. By putting purpose first, by being thoughtful – not just once, but over time – about where we find joy, then we are much better able to have our financial decisions support that quest. This is the opposite of what many unfortunately do, which is let the desire for and experience with money determine what we do in life.
“True wealth is the ability to underwrite a meaningful life.” -Brian Portnoy
But, let’s face it: many of us won’t commit to doing that. So, let’s make this simple. Let’s improve our spirit of thanksgiving and gratitude right now, whatever we are doing, wherever we are, even if we are not celebrating Thanksgiving.
Most business leaders are focused on growing their business or their profits. They focus on the numbers, on market share, on strategy. But there’s growing evidence that focusing on employee happiness is the key to creating sustainable success. Not only do I agree, but I’ve experienced this first hand in the companies I have had the privilege to lead. If you help employees increase their fulfillment, express their unique gifts, and live out their purpose, you will fuel happiness and see dramatically improved results.
The evidence to support this focus on happiness is masterfully compiled in Jennifer Moss’ book, Unlocking Happiness at Work. She distills decades of research and data and then lays out an actionable book with immediate guidance to leaders. If you want to ensure your team thrives, this book is a must-read. Jennifer is the co-founder of Plasticity Labs, committed to supporting people on their path to happiness. She and her co-founders were named Innovators of the Year by Canadian Business Magazine. I recently spoke with her about her findings.
“Happiness is a habit. Cultivate it.” -Elbert Hubbard
Your family story is compelling and provides a personal backdrop to your research. Tell us about Jim’s accident and how it impacted you.
In 2009, my husband Jim and I were living in San Jose, California. At the time, Jim was a professional lacrosse player, former Gold Medalist for Team Canada, who’d played in the World Cup on four professional teams. Obviously, he was a high-performing athlete who’d spent his entire life competing. It was why we were so shocked when the firefighters had to knock down the door to pick him up, race him to the ER, and then within hours he was diagnosed with West Nile, Swine Flu and a post-viral illness, Guillain Barré Syndrome (GBS), a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.
The response to treating Jim was all about acting fast. He would essentially experience a rebooting of his immune system through a treatment known as immunoglobulin (IVIG) therapy. IVIG therapy is an antibody (immunoglobulin) mixture, given (in Jim’s case) intravenously to treat or prevent a variety of diseases including GBS. It is extracted via the plasma of 10,000-50,000 donors. For Jim, and for our family, the treatment would be life-saving.
This is when the physicians shared both the good and the bad news. Jim would live. But, he may not recover fully.
Ok, we swallowed that statement. But what did that mean?
You wake up and you’re feeling amazing. Then you spill something on your clothes at breakfast and get stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work. You realize you will be late for your first appointment, and your frustration grows by the minute.
Fast forward hours later, and you’re feeling great again.
Up and down. Down and Up.
How do you stop the wild mood swings?
“Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out.” –Anonymous
CEO Forum Magazine dubbed him the “father of organizational culture” and thousands have attended his company’s training programs. Larry Senn is chairman and founder of Senn Delaney, a firm dedicated to helping organizations shape their culture. I recently spoke to him about his new book, The Mood Elevator: Take Charge of Your Feelings, Become a Better You.
He helps you understand your moods and gain control, limiting the time in the basement and helping you stay in the upper floors.
Develop a Healthy Response
The Mood Elevator. Unfortunately, all of us are experienced with the dramatic ride. What are some of the triggers that cause a sudden shift in floors?
Yes, to be human means we all ride the Mood Elevator. Since our thoughts create our moods, dramatic drops in mood come from big shifts in our thinking. We start our day in a great place and high mood after a morning run and a good breakfast. Then we open an email, and a colleague says he heard we may not be closing the deal we were counting on. Our mind starts to spin as we run through all the possible negative consequences of that happening. That creates feelings down the Mood Elevator like insecurity, worry, self-judgement and mild depression.
Things like that happen in major and minor ways as life comes at us. What’s interesting is how we each deal with circumstances can be very different. Another person might get the same email and go to curiosity, a much healthier level, first. “I wonder what that might be about or if it is even true – I’ll check it out.” They might also go to creative and resourceful and start to think about all the ways they can best secure the deal.
As Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” -Shakespeare
Would you comment on any career limitations and/or leadership problems you’ve seen due to leaders not having conscious control of their floor?
I have observed CEOs self-destruct as well as very smart and capable leaders ruin their careers and their marriages because they lacked emotional control and led from the lower floors of the Mood Elevator. I’ve also seen leaders become world class CEOs by learning how to better ride the Mood Elevator.
The reason is simple − our thinking is reliable and wise when in the higher mood states, while it is very unreliable in the lower floors. Anyone who has ever said something to a loved one they wished they could take back has experienced the phenomenon. We have very low emotional intelligence (EQ) when down the elevator. That means leaders can’t build great teams, create great cultures, be as creative or make good decisions from the lower floors of the elevator.
“We become what we think about all day long.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
You talk about the power to brake. What are a few ways we can slow, stop or resist our emotional impulses?
It all starts with learning to use your feelings as your guide. When we are self-aware, we can tell when we are worrying, angry, judgmental, self-righteous or depressed. We will all experience those feelings at times. Think about it like having to drive on an icy road at night. You may have to do it, but you proceed with caution. Delay big decisions, pause before putting your foot in your mouth, and tell yourself your thinking is likely to be flawed.
Copyright Larry Senn; Used by Permission
When unwanted things happen or people do things that don’t make sense to me, I have feelings of intensity. That’s my clue. What I find most helpful is to first pause, take a deep breath and center myself. Then I try to use what I call in the book the “brake” on the Mood Elevator. That break is shifting my thinking from judgement to curiosity. What am I missing here? Why might that have made sense to them in their thinking? What lesson can I learn from that? As I tell leaders in our off-sites, if they just lived more of their life in curiosity instead of judgment they would have a different experience of life and different results.
“Happiness is not the absence of problems-it’s the ability to deal with them” –Steve Maraboli
Some bemoan the constant interruptions and endless internet surfing. Others celebrate the new-found freedom and capabilities.
How has the digital age impacted our happiness?
Amy Blankson is one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between positive psychology and technology. She is the only person to be named a Point of Light by two presidents (President George Bush Sr. and President Bill Clinton) for creating a movement to activate positive culture change. A sought-after speaker and consultant, Amy has now worked with organizations like Google, NASA, the US Army, and the Xprize Foundation to help foster a sense of well-being in the Digital Era.
I want to start with the question that an entrepreneur asked you at one of your presentations: “Social media and technology are destroying our happiness, right?”
In recent months, I have seen a growing number of posts about how bad technology is for us. Technology is blamed for social isolation, disconnection, and corruption. But I’ve also heard and seen how technology can be used for good — a means to connect, to share knowledge, to empower, even to save lives. So, which is it: Is technology good for us or bad for us? Does technology make us less happy or more happy? As Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Technology is a tool, a means to an end–and WE get to decide how that story ends.
Fact: 95% of Americans spend 2 or more hours a day using a digital device.
Since technology can both bring joy and destroy it, tell us a few ways you’ve used it to your advantage. And tell us about what apps you’re using for happiness, productivity, and to “tune in, not zone out.”
One of my favorite examples of “happytech” is the Spire stone. The Spire stone is a small wearable that clips onto your bra strap or waistband to monitor your respiration and, in turn, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and increase the flow of endorphins in your blood stream. The Spire uses your breathing patterns to figure out when you are tense, calm, or focused, and provides gentle notifications to guide you when you need it most.
When I first started testing out the Spire stone, I had a particularly poignant experience. Last spring, my family jumped into our backyard pool to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather. In an unfortunate turn of circumstances, my younger daughter jumped into the pool a bit too close to her older sister, landing on her neck and breaking her neck. I happened to be out of town when this happened, so I didn’t know how bad the situation was until I returned home and took my older daughter to the doctor. I was wearing my Spire stone the whole time and had managed to stay fairly calm through the doctor visit; however, as I was walking out of the hospital with my daughter in a giant neck brace, my Spire stone began to vibrate to let me know I was feeling tense. Pausing to think about what was going on, I realized that I was actually anxious about how other people would perceive me as the mother of a child with a broken neck. The nudge was just enough to help me reframe my thoughts to be more present for my daughter rather than worried about myself, and I was able to short-circuit an emotional response that might have taken me a week or more to realize before I had the Spire stone.
“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” –Robert Solow
Sometimes tech is fun just for the sake of the endorphin rush and the dopamine boost. But at what point do those focus-altering diversions cause us to lose sight over what we really care about? At what point do diversions turn into fixations that are distracting?
Sometimes we become so engrossed in our diversions that we don’t notice that they are no longer making us happy anymore. Like Wile E. Coyote in Looney Tunes, we get our legs going so fast that it actually takes us a moment to realize that we have run right off the Happiness Cliff. Let me assure you that this never turns out well for poor Wile E.
According to the Law of Diminishing Returns, many diversions can actually be beneficial for our productivity and happiness—up to a point. Beyond that point, the diversion simply becomes a waste of time and eventually a time suck that becomes harmful to our productivity. To avoid falling off the happiness cliff, start your day by setting your intention for how you want to use your time. When you start to find yourself engrossed in a task, pause to ask if your technology use is helping you tune in (helping you to achieve your intention) or causing you to zone out. If your answer is the latter, then try to set a time limit for yourself to engage in that activity so that you don’t get sucked in and lose focus.
Happiness Tip: pause to see if you are tuning in or zoning out.
What does the latest research tell us about our ability to train our brains to be more positive?
The latest research from the field of positive psychology reveals that training our brains to be more positive is not only possible, it’s actually essential to striving after your full potential. Why? Because when your brain is positive, it receives a boost of dopamine, which turns on the learning centers in the brain and makes you able to see more possibilities in your environment. In fact, a positive brain has been linked to: 37% higher sales, 3x more creativity, 31% higher productivity, 40% increase in likelihood of receiving a promotion, 23% decrease in symptoms of fatigue, 10x increase in the level of engagement at work, a 39% increase in the likelihood of living to age 94, and a 50% decrease in the risk of heart disease.
Research: Positive people have a 40% increase in likelihood of a job promotion.