Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What's It All For?

Most money books give advice on how to amass wealth, but fail to ask the deeper questions:

  • "What am I doing all this for?"
  • "How do I define success?"
  • "Precisely what am I trying to achieve by bettering my personal finances?"

In Enjoy Your Money, I argue that most of us are searching for deep and lasting happiness. To see if that's your ultimate goal, do this little dialogue with Socrates (substitute your financial goal for the "Corvette" and substitute your name for "Bob"):

Socrates: Give me one of your financial goals.
Bob: I want a Corvette by my 35th birthday.
Socrates: Why do you want a Corvette?
Bob: Because Corvettes are super fast and look cool!
Socrates: And just why do you want something that's fast and cool?
Bob: Because people would look up to me and respect me.
Socrates: And why do you want people to respect you?
Bob: Because if I could get people to respect me...I suppose they'd want to hang around me.
Socrates: And why do you want people to hang around you?
Bob: Because if people wanted to hang around me, I'd be happier.
Socrates: So, you want the Corvette because you think it will make you happier. In other words, if you knew that buying a Corvette wouldn't make you happier, you wouldn't buy it. Right?
Bob: Right.

I think Socrates would tend to lead us back to happiness as one of our ultimate goals no matter what our financial goals may be, which helps us to clear away a lot of fog and simply ask the question, "How can I be a happier person?" Attaining certain financial goals may indeed make us happier. Others may not. We'd do well to think it through.

Fortunately, Psychologists have done some pretty extensive studies to try to narrow down what makes some happier than others. Interestingly, once we've crawled above the poverty line and have basics such as food and shelter, just making $5000 or $10,000 more per year doesn't do much for our happiness. What does?

In part, psychologists have found that giving people are happier people. Those who seek hardest for wealth in itself are less happy than those who seek hardest for the welfare of others. I noticed that today, as I was inexplicably down this morning. With my mind distracted by life's heartaches and troubles, life looked grim.

Around noon, a neighbor knocked on the door, leaving a card. In it, she thanked us exuberantly for a little act of kindness we did last Saturday. Having just found out that her husband was recovering from a stroke, my wife and I walked over to find him trying to fix his lawn mower. I asked what we could do to help and he suggested that it would take a couple of hours for him to pick up all the pine cones left from the winter, so that he could mow.

No problem. I asked David and Paul, my 15-year-old twins, to come over and help out our neighbor. It took a bit over an hour. While we were picking up, another neighbor saw us and asked if I was making extra money (which wouldn't be beneath me, I might add). I told him about the stroke and he said, "after you get the pine cones picked up, I'll do the mowing."

To us, it was no big deal. To the family reeling from an unexpected blow, it meant the world. And hey, what could be a better memory to build with my kids?

So we brought a bit of happiness to a struggling family. In return, they gave us a deep feeling of fulfillment. Even now, three days later, their card pulled me through a downer morning.

So my answer to the "what's it all for?" question involves serving others. Is one of your long-term goals "to be the greatest possible assistance to the less fortunate by using my God-given gifts and abilities?"

I'm able to pick up pine cones. What can you do?

As Albert Einstein once stated concerning life's meaning:

"The life of the individual has meaning only insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful." (Albert Einstein)

Meaningfulness...and happiness, today's scientists might add.

This post by J. Steve Miller, author of Enjoy Your Money: How to Make It, Save It, Invest It and Give It.