This article is taken from our autumn 2022 edition of Equinox. You can view the full version here.
The question ‘what makes us happy?’ is one that has troubled scholars, philosophers and poets throughout the centuries.
This question is difficult enough to answer, but when we add all the distractions that money brings, it becomes even harder.
Financial wellbeing looks at all aspects of the relationship between money and happiness. It explains why we might not be very good with money; how our money might be making us less happy; and how we can change our relationship with money to live a life of wellbeing.
Being confident, happy and healthy in the relationship we have with our finances is a significant contributor to our overall state of wellbeing.
Are we good with money?
Financial planning is simply not in our DNA. Throughout history our decision-making has been based on a ‘fight or flight’ response. Historically, we have needed to be more concerned with surviving, than saving for our future selves. As recently as a century ago, few people lived past working age. As a result, there was little need for financial planning.
It is only since the 1980s, with the introduction of private pensions, the closure of private company pension schemes, plus longer lifespans, that we have faced the challenge of having to fund for a long retirement. Add the fact that financial education is a topic often overlooked in schools, it’s understandable that having a healthy relationship with money isn’t something that we are equipped for.
What is happiness?
I tend to think of happiness (or joy) as something short term, whereas wellbeing (or contentment) is much longer lasting. Happiness is easy to find, but difficult to hold on to.
With our fight or flight mentality, we tend to focus on the short term. We seek gratification now and we are not keen on delaying our joy for a later date. Consequently, we tend to spend money on bursts of happiness, by buying stuff and ignoring how this might be affecting our long-term wellbeing. There is even a name for this: retail therapy.
We need to find a new attitude to money, one that moves us away from buying short-term hits of happiness and onto longer-term wellbeing.
The five pillars
There are five parts to financial wellbeing:
- A clear path to identifiable objectives
- Control of daily finances
- Having financial options
- Clarity and security for those we leave behind
- Being able to cope with financial shocks
Some interpret financial wellbeing as solely being in control of your daily finances. While this will be a focal point for many, given the current economic landscape, it is just one element.
To move away from the short-term approach to money, we need to understand what brings wellbeing. Only then can we see the role that money has to play.
Let us look closer at the first pillar: a clear path to identifiable objectives. We choose our objectives by what we are motivated to do. If we understand what motivates us, we will start to see what makes us happy.
There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. An extrinsic motivation is something that we do for other people. It might be for status or reward; for applause or praise; to achieve a target or to avoid a deadline.
Achieving an extrinsic motivation brings only short-term wellbeing. Once the applause has died down, we seek further gratification.
An intrinsic motivation, however, is something we do just because we want to. It often involves helping others or doing something creative. When we achieve intrinsic motivations, our wellbeing lasts considerably longer as it gives our life meaning and purpose.
We then have loss aversion to consider. This describes how we feel the loss of something far greater than we feel the equivalent gain. If the stock market goes up, you may barely notice; if it goes down, you may feel panicky.
Research suggests we feel the loss of something over three times more than the equivalent gain (Source: Neil Bage of BeIQ). If we aim for an intrinsic motivation, but fail to achieve it, then this might make us three times more unhappy than if we hadn’t aimed for it in the first place.
We, therefore, need to make sure that the intrinsic motivations we are aiming for are achievable.
Asking ourselves: “How can I live the life I want?” might not be such an easy question to answer after all. Our tendency to focus on the short term, to buy happiness, leads us away from considering the needs of our future selves.
This is made worse by the fact that it’s not easy to challenge our own assumptions. If it were, they wouldn’t be assumptions.
We go through life accumulating experiences, reaching certain conclusions. We test them, leading us to amend or confirm our initial thoughts. If the latter happens repeatedly, they may become beliefs.
It is important to remember that beliefs are not truths. Just because we believe something to be true does not necessarily mean that it is.
Our beliefs define who we are. If they go on to lead to poor outcomes, then they are known as self-limiting beliefs.
We all have certain beliefs about money. You might hear someone say: “I’m not very good with money” or “The stock market isn’t for me.” These statements are not reality – they are beliefs. Without going back to the source, it is extremely difficult to change them. Indeed, we may not even be aware of them. These can be exacerbated when you consider all the differing beliefs held between couples and within families.
A skilled financial planner can help us to understand where our relationship with money might not be producing outcomes which increase our wellbeing.
Barriers to wellbeing
There are other barriers; for example, the way society equates success with money and money with success. Yet research shows us that a person who sees money as an objective will be less happy than they might otherwise be (Source: summary of Schwab’s Circumflex in Hyper Capitalism by Professor Tim Kasser).
Seeing money as the objective of life is an extrinsic motivation and as such, can never be achieved. Each time we get more money, we spend more (known as ‘income creep’). To work out how much is enough, you first need to understand what brings meaning and purpose to your life. Your intrinsic motivations.
What value can we put on financial wellbeing?
We can see that living the life we want is easier said than done. The good news is that there are principles to follow, research to help us live a life with meaning and purpose, and financial plans that will make us happier, not just wealthier.
This blog is intended as an informative piece and does not construe advice. If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us using the form below or by reaching out to your usual Equilibrium contact.