In January of 2023, I did a podcast with Dan Harris, the ABC news anchor who had a panic attack on air. That experience ultimately led him to create an app and podcast of mindfulness programs called Ten Percent Happier. Similarly, my own panic attack led me to re-evaluate my career, including everything I learned about money and my relationship to it.
Here are some of the essential things I’ve learned.
The Dharma of Money
I call the investigation of money The Dharma of Money. For me, Dharma refers to the reality or inherent nature of something and the psychological teachings of Buddhism. I created The Dharma of Money so we can move from anxiety and confusion to flourishing with our personal finances and our work lives.
Many people, myself included, pay allegiance to John D. Rockefeller’s idea of enough money. He was the world’s first billionaire and his idea of enough was stated as “just a little bit more.”
While this definition might sound ridiculous, the belief that more is better is a common one yet it can cause tremendous emotional suffering – even keeping us from having the very things we want – financial success and peace of mind. Wanting more sounds innocent enough, but it trains our brain to be ill at ease with what we have. It can actually add to our fear of scarcity. It’s like eating chocolate ice cream while thinking about getting more, instead of enjoying what’s in front of us.
On the other hand, there’s the real possibility we might need more money for critical unforeseen expenses like long-term care, so too much money is better than too little, right? Isn’t money connected to well-being? In many ways, yes. As I discussed with Dan, I’ve come to see that there is a balance.
For example, when I’m with a client today, I ask questions about their work. What do they love and not love about their job? How could what they do for a living become more satisfying? Would they stay in their current line of work if they knew they only had five years left to live? While I used to ignore these questions, particularly if someone was a high earner, I now explore these ideas to see if they are trading in their health and well-being to make their long-term financial plan successful. Finding balance is key.
How to Shift Your Thinking
If you want to reduce financial stress, try this mindfulness practice: shift your focus from wanting more to appreciating what you have (relative to 10 or 20 years ago). Instead of focusing on how much money you have today, remind yourself how much your money has grown over the last few decades. If you have a financial advisor, you should also ask them how much your money has grown over the long term, not just the past year.
And, here’s a bonus: studies show that when we’re less stressed, we tend to earn more money at work and make smarter financial decisions. I am convinced of this in my own life: when we’re less stressed, our finances just do better. I also see my clients are less likely to spend and invest impulsively when they are less stressed.
Dan Harris and I also spoke about gaining awareness (an integral part of Buddhist psychology), particularly the value of gaining awareness of our inherited money beliefs and autopilot behaviors. The first step to gaining awareness is paying attention. How do you do that? It’s noticing what happens to your heart rate, your breathing (and your thoughts) right before and after you buy something, or after a friend tells you she just got a huge raise or bought a new home, or you’re about to look at your bank account or portfolio balance.
Look at your history with money and see if you can discern any patterns in how you spend, save, or think about money. You could also muster the courage to ask a friend or spouse to offer you feedback on your money patterns and blind spots. Once you’re aware of the autopilot behavior, the key to a more spacious and wiser financial life is to interrupt those automatic patterns.
For example, if you tend to sit on the couch and fantasize about winning the lottery or receiving some other windfall, interrupt the rumination, get off the couch, and write about the origin of the fantasy. Then, to counter it, write down a few concrete, practical ways you could increase your income, rather than waiting for a windfall.
If your pattern is to spend money when you’re bored or upset, commit to doing something generous for someone else instead (generosity comes in many forms and Buddhists say it energizes us). If your pattern is to judge yourself after spending or investing, commit to immersing yourself in nature where the trees don’t judge, listen to inspiring music, or talk with a non-judgmental friend the next time this emerges.
Interrupting your automatic behaviors and thought patterns is an important first step and something you can start today. “What’s in the way becomes the way,” says Brene Brown. Interrupting actually creates new neural pathways in the brain. We’re cultivating a healthier relationship to money each time we interrupt our unhelpful patterns. We also create the spaciousness needed to see a new financial opportunity.
Being More Mindful Around Money
Often with money, we’re aiming to minimize stress, confusion, and anxiety – getting rid of what we don’t want. But what about creating positive emotions around money? Dan and I discussed the four higher emotions from Buddhism, which very much align with a more evolved money life. They include: cultivating generosity, self-compassion, feeling joy instead of jealousy or envy, and a sense of being even-keeled and resilient. These are qualities we can train for, just like we can train for a more fit body.
Here’s your (more mindful) financial fitness training program:
- For five minutes each week, note how your net worth has grown over the past 10 to 20 years and appreciate the progress you’ve made. Connect with a feeling of gratitude. If your net worth has declined over this period, focus instead on how much wisdom and life experience you’ve gained during these years and remind yourself that anything is possible going forward.
- For one minute each day, send good wishes to someone who earns or has more money than you. When we do this we’re training ourselves to feel happy when others are successful. Imagine the difference in your body of feeling joy versus envy for this person. This is the counterintuitive Buddhist practice of Sympathetic Joy.
- For one minute each day, cultivate an ‘Enough’ mindset. Do something where you’re aiming for Enough instead of more. Here are a few possible actions: end meetings a few minutes early so you’re able to transition to your next meeting in a relaxed way; tell friends that you’re feeling spacious instead of overwhelmed; sketch out a workable financial game plan that assumes your current assets and income (even if that means moving in with your family/friends); contemplate the possibility that you have, do, and are enough (because no one has ever gotten there by simply accumulating more money).
- Practice two acts of generosity every day. For example: share a generous smile or let someone in front of you when you’re driving, make a donation, or help someone with a chore. Generosity breaks down fear and strengthens neural pathways that lead to a sense of enoughness.
- Welcome your next financial setback. Since you know impermanence is here to stay and that everyone has many financial setbacks in life, expect it and embrace it as a way of cultivating resilience and getting prepared. For example, instead of being surprised by the need for a new roof, expect that a new roof will be needed every 20 years. Have a reserve account for these surprises, as well as a metaphorical ‘reserve’ in your mind that’s anticipating (and welcoming) them.
- Take one minute each day to practice feeling compassion toward yourself for any difficult past or current financial decisions or circumstances. Compassion frees us from blaming ourselves and others, which stunts our financial success.
The Path Forward
If you’ve ever felt a sense of panic around money, it may be hard, but there is likely something to be mined from that experience. For me, my panic attack led me to become aware of my relentless pursuit for more, to the detriment of my well being. That awareness led me to uncover many of the Buddhist practices I share with people today, which have helped me to feel less stress and a greater sense of well-being.
Little did I know when I first started these practices that, ironically, they might also be the precursors to making wiser money decisions! How incredible that mindfulness practices can offer us the potential for more money and more joy from the money we already have. My wish is that the Dharma of Money work provides a welcome pathway for you and many others to experience financial wellness.
If you are looking to find a sense of enough and align your values with your money, reach out to an Abacus advisor today and explore the possibilities.