We have two happy dogs as part of the collection of loonietics that we call our family. You just have to look at them and their tails start wagging. We are all trying to chase happiness and fulfillment as the ultimate goals behind working towards financial independence. These two beasts seem to be living it out. What is their secret? Mindfulness.
Note: I originally wrote this post back in 2017. It was pretty bad. So, I completely rewrote it in Sept 2022 to include in my basic financial wellness curriculum.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is loosely defined as a psychological process of paying attention to your present moment thoughts and experiences. Achieving it could be as simple as pausing to enjoy the sensory stimuli around you like the heat of the sun on your black fur, the smell of freshly dug dirt, or the wind blowing in your face while driving with the windows open. It can be pausing to savour the moment of being with good friends and loved ones.
I used to scoff at “mindfulness” because I had visions of a bunch of Hollywood types running around in the desert trying to find themselves. Or some gurus sitting still while birds perch on them. What changed my mind was both experience and science. There are good reasons why mindfulness is usually the first thing trotted out when an organization decides to “tackle burn-out”.
That usually translates into formal methods, with meditation and yoga being the prototypical ones. These have actually been studied and a growing body of evidence supports their effectiveness. My dogs don’t do science, but they can still teach us some informal lessons about mindfulness.
Lesson #1: Be mindful of emotions.
That means both how you are feeling, and how others around you are feeling.
Be mindful of the language, tone, and body language of those around you. My dogs know very few words, but if someone in our family is upset, they are there like glue providing extra emotional support. The golden retreiver is really purpose-built for this role with his squishy stress-ball like head and tear-absorbent fur.
Emotional intelligence is vital to our career and personal satisfaction.
Building relationships, as we spend our personal capital to build wealth, has a synergistic return in lasting happiness. That applies to both our careers and our personal lives. Emotions can run high in healthcare. However, it is vital to our personal lives. The closer the relationship is, usually the stronger the emotions are.
Being mindful of our emotions makes us better investors.
Investors’ real life returns often underperform the returns of their underlying investments. Why? Because the buy and sell at sub-optimal times. That behavioural gap is driven by our emotions. Choosing an asset allocation that suits our emotional risk tolerance helps us to minimize that problem. Despite that planning, we must be mindful of how we are feeling to recognize that. That gives us a chance to control the bad urges of the moment, like selling in a market crash. Further, that insight can also help us to adjust our asset allocation as we gain experience. It is unlikely that you will get it perfect the first time. Your risk tolerance will change with your experience and circumstances.
Lesson #2: Be mindful of scripts.
Dogs love unconditionally and accept their pack-mates for who they are. We strive to do this as spouses and parents. But it is not easy. My wife’s love for me is, fortunately, not conditional on my putting the laundry on the floor on my side of the bed into the hamper. However, it would probably help. She does supportively encourage me to improve myself in this regard. How we react when those close to us don’t behave as we would like them to is particularly important with our kids.
We all carry scripts of what our childhood was like, how we were raised, and how we dealt with the challenges of growing into adulthood. It is easy to be supportive of our kids when they have a very similar personality or disposition to us. They easy follow the scripts that we know worked for us.
We must be mindful of those scripts, to be equally supportive when our kids approach things differently. They need our unconditional support to help them develop their own unique strengths and find their own paths to success. This builds a strong dependable pack that raises resilient independent children.
Professionally, we are also subject to scripts. Recognizing them, and knowing when to deviate from the script, is vital for our career fulfillment. Mindfulness of our scripts helps us to mentor the others in our work or family pack to find their own symbiotic career and life.
Lesson #3: Be mindful of what you communicate without words.
Physical contact may speak louder than words.
It doesn’t matter what our dogs are doing (except perhaps begging for cheese) – when one of us comes through the door to the house, the dogs run to greet them. The bad stuff that happens at work is easy to check at the door when the first thing you encounter are two beings so ecstatic to see you. Their whole bodies shake and wiggle, while they press their heads up against your legs and look up at you. Physical contact communicates affection. Don’t forget this and don’t neglect it.
How you spend your time says a lot about your priorities.
Prioritize spending time with your loved ones. Another part of unequivocally communicating your affection is by prioritizing. To make sure you spend time with each other.
When they aren’t outside hunting mice, my dogs are predictably with one of the other family members. Our black Lab invariably finds a spot near my wife or I. She is snoring under my desk as I write this. Our golden retriever is usually found snuggled up on the couch with whomever is sitting there.
Lesson #4: Be mindful of when to spend your energy.
Conserve your energy for the hunt.
Our black Lab has the ability to completely relax her body and mold it to “become one” with most pieces of furniture. It is easy to construe this as laziness. However, when outside she is a ball of energy. I have seen her sprint faster than a deer. She also has the endurance to spend hours hunting and digging for mice in the fields around our house.
It is easier said than done in a 24h/day professional world, but get enough sleep. It will make the time that you do spend on tasks more efficient and effective. You can’t get more time in a day, but you can make the most effective use of what time you have.
There is a time to relax and a time to turn on the afterburners. Be sure to do both.
Lesson #5: Play outside with sticks.
When you participate in a leisure activity, consider how much enjoyment it is giving you. We sometimes get pressured into doing things we “should enjoy”, but don’t. Again, this may be from other people’s scripts, and they are often expensive activities. For me, that would be theatre, ship cruises, and fancy restaurants. I prefer nature as my toy box whenever possible. Just like my dogs and my kids.
There is a significant body of literature showing that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors. The evidence is similar for adults in terms of mood, physical health, stress reduction, and resilience when faced with new stresses.
Even when playing outside, more expensive toys aren’t necessarily better. When my dogs play, they play hard. Every toy eventually will be broken or gutted. More complex toys just make a bigger mess and usually don’t last as long. Their favourite toy is whatever stick they have found. The beauty is that whenever it breaks, no problem, just find another one. The fancier the toys that we own are, like luxury vehicles for the adults, or complex radio control drones for the kids (or me), the more components they have to break. And the more costly the repair.
I am not saying to never pay for expensive equipment for your leisure activities. I have an expensive motorhome and a Kevlar canoe. Just be mindful of whether that is bringing you more joy or not. I know that I am mindful of how much better I feel portaging with my ultra-light canoe than the previous clunkers. I savor it.
Lesson #6: There will always be another chipmunk.
Okay. So, this is something that my dogs do not do well. However, it is a good cautionary tale. Apparently, a chipmunk thought this downspout would make a good escape route. It underestimated my dog’s perseverance, but it still got away.
While perseverance is laudable, don’t be so focused on what is in front of you that you miss the chipmunk sneaking out the other end. This is important for anyone working towards financial independence. You must balance the pillars of FIRE to make a strong financial base. However, there are many ways to do that and pitfalls if you focus too narrowly on one.
The other lesson is that there will always be another chipmunk. So, don’t hurt yourself pursuing one. Whether it is something physical, like a house, or some other goal. Be mindful to reflect on what you are trying to accomplish, why, and what the options are. Don’t be afraid to change course. There will always be another chipmunk. Or, you may decide that you prefer groundhog instead.
How can mindfulness help us?
There is evidence that mindfulness helps to reduce anxiety and improve affect. That literature defines mindfulness as a state of mind passively observing thought, without judgement. Like meditating. However, mindfulness also commonly refers to a way of processing information and acting intentionally. Like my dogs. The former mindfulness approach is helpful, and it gets well-deserved airtime in the wellness world. However, I also think my dogs’ approach helps too.
Being mindful of our emotions and helps us to respond to situations better. That is vital for the personal and professional relationships that are core to a fulfilling career and life. We must also be mindful of what we do, as well as what we say.
Time is the constant that underpins our personal capital. So, being mindful to spend our time and energy efficiently is important. Preserving energy to focus it, when it matters the most, increases our impact.
We must be mindful of our goals and values and be aware of the scripts around us. Play outside, be active, and use toys or equipment that add to your enjoyment rather than your to-do list. Savor the pleasure of the experiences. Not only does that help increase happiness, but it can also help you to control the speed on the hedonic treadmill that can hobble our financial plans.
Remember to take the time to pause, reflect and alter course as needed. Strong financial health will enable you to do that. And remember, there will always be another chipmunk (or groundhog).