A Buddhist Approach to Finding Joy in Your Money Life

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Please note the publish date of this blog. Financial information, market conditions, and other data mentioned in this post may no longer be accurate or relevant.

I remember my first newspaper delivery route when I was 10 years old, how those shiny coins and smelly dollar bills represented possibility to me. They signaled that I was growing up and that I had the power to buy anything – at least in my imagination. 

Then, adolescence and adulthood came along and I experienced the not-so-joyful dimensions of money. What was it about these phases of life that changed me?

How Do You Really Feel About Money?

Today, what would a joyful relationship to money look like for you? Maybe you imagine yourself content with the money you have, buying only the goods, services, and experiences that bring more value than you pay, acting generously without regret or guilt, and feeling good about your investments regardless of their short term fluctuations. 

This way of life is entirely possible and the teachings from Buddhism can help us experience more joy regardless of our financial circumstances. Joy doesn’t just feel good, it is an essential emotion that prompts us into wise action with our finances.

Learning to Access Joy

To achieve joy, Buddhism suggests we look at what’s blocking it. One of our biggest obstacles to joy is our never ending desire for more (aka greed). This is a slippery slope. When we want something and that desire gets fulfilled, we receive a dopamine surge in the brain. In other words, for a short period of time, we actually get a flash of pleasure. 

But that flash of pleasure is temporary. Each time we satisfy our wants, we are creating new neural pathways and training our brains to believe we need a new shiny object or novel experience to have joy. This actually creates a life of suffering where we reinforce the notion that more is better, and who we are (and what we have) is not sufficient. 

Two Types of Joy

There are two types of joy: personal joy and experiencing another’s joy, which is called sympathetic joy. Personal joy is when we receive a well-earned promotion; sympathetic joy is when we feel joy that our friend got a promotion.

I believe the most direct path to personal joy is to embrace the liberating idea of Enough. We live in a world where even billionaires don’t feel like they have enough and want more. Many studies have found that human beings gain happiness as our income increases, but our happiness levels out at incomes around $100,000. In essence, someone who makes $500,000 a year is not happier on a day-to-day level than someone making $100,000. 

There are, of course, people who don’t have enough food, shelter, or clothing. But for those of us who do have their basic needs in life covered, we could greatly benefit from looking for evidence that we have enough, we do enough, we are enough. As the Dalai Lama said: “To find happiness, we need to learn how to want what we have, not to have what we want.” 

How to Create a Sense of Enough

One powerful practice to cultivate this idea of being enough is to express gratitude. Gratitude does not have to be just for material goods, gratitude can simply be for whatever is happening in this moment.

Right now, I would like you to sense your appreciation for what you have – even just reading these words: appreciate this breath and heartbeat that have kept you alive since birth, your common sense, your ability to move, your sense of humor, your creativity, an ability to see new perspectives, your friends and family. 

Sense the texture of this gratitude as you mindfully express it. When you feel grateful, how does your body and mind respond? How do these feelings contrast with the times when you’re not feeling so grateful?

The Origins of Unhappiness

You might be wondering, where does this greed or ever present sense of ‘not enough’ come from? We are so conditioned from birth that more is better, that there’s something out there that will remove our pain and bring us joy. 

When it comes to money, we ultimately equate net worth with self worth. We think if we can raise our net worth, we will also increase our sense of self. But, the opposite is more often true. As our net worth increases, we can become more dependent on the amount of money we have, and actually experience more stress and less freedom. 

Acquiring more ultimately produces more wanting, which leads to more disappointment (as nothing outside of ourselves brings lasting joy). Have you noticed that when a want gets realized, it just leads to another want? You get the Economy Plus seat, then you want First Class, and then you want to fly privately…

Whether we’re noticing those in First Class or hearing about a colleague who gets a promotion, sympathetic joy feels nearly impossible. Unfortunately, we are both missing an opportunity for joy and creating envy. Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” 

So, how do we turn this around? Start wishing more success and happiness to anyone with whom you compare yourself. I know that sounds counterintuitive – it’s like turning into a skid when driving on ice. But this practice has contributed to my success. It has allowed me to feel joy when another has something to celebrate, and it has improved the quality of my relationships.

Is There an Antidote to Wanting and Envying?

Giving! We’ve all heard the platitude, “The more you give, the more you’ll receive.” But, did you know research shows that subjects who give money away have a bigger increase in happiness than those who receive money? 

In studies on generosity, the attitude of generosity is just as (or more) important as the amount of money, time, attention, or resources given. The act of being generous signals to our brains that we are okay, that we have enough; otherwise, we wouldn’t be giving. 

I have seen this in my clients and with myself. One client resisted giving away his abundant resources for decades, and then he got inspired by the generosity of others to start giving. The strange result was that even though he now has less money, he feels he has enough for the first time in his life. He has gotten off the Wanting More treadmill. 

I have also experienced less stress over portfolio volatility since giving more generously. I encourage you to start giving smiles, then attention, then time, then resources, and then money (even those without money benefit from becoming generous). Give with an attitude that you’re benefiting the world as well as yourself. 

How do you feel when you’re acting generously? Most of us feel joy. I think this joy comes from your brain sensing that you have, do, and are enough. Brene Brown reminds us, Generosity shifts your thinking from ‘me’ to ‘we’. It connects us to others and as a species, we are hardwired for connection, and connection is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.”

Making New Patterns

Buddhist practices help us let go of what’s habitual by bringing mindfulness and intention to everything we do. And letting go of patterns – especially with our spending – often brings us incredible feelings of freedom. 

Here’s an invitation: dedicate a week this month for only buying groceries and essentials. What happens to you in your mind and body? How are your day-to-day emotions affected? How are your relationships affected? Please tell me about your experience with this. 

Here’s something you might also start experiencing: joy. A well known Buddhist meditation teacher and scholar once told me that being present is the precursor to joy. But so often we’re trapped in regretting our past money decisions or fantasizing about unrealistic positive or negative scenarios occurring in the future. 

Using this mindfulness practice can train your brain to focus more on the present moment, and when your mind does stray to the past or future, bring it right back to this moment with the same gentleness that you’d bring to a toddler who falls while learning to walk.

How to Start

The tools for experiencing joy in your money life are quite accessible. Just imagine you are at a fork in the road: you can continue your familiar stressful patterns with money, or you engage with these life-transforming Buddhist practices. What sounds more freeing?

Today is the best day to begin focusing your thoughts on the present (not the past or future). Today is the best day to choose that having enough will give you more joy than wanting more. That letting go of clinging so much to your wants is a step towards freedom. That wishing well to others can reduce comparison and envy, and that gratitude and generosity are the best vitamins for your financial health. 

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll rekindle a childhood wonder around money. What if every money interaction is simply an opportunity for expressing your values and joy? Spend, give, save, and invest in ways that feel authentic and joyful. 

If you want an accountability partner and ally, you can reach out to Abacus today. We have the structures and experience in place to help you turn your money stress into feelings of joy.


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