Are We in The Money Business or The Happiness Business?
Spoiler Alert: Its Neither!
I spend a great deal of my time introducing prospective partner firms to, what we believe to be, an innovative, proprietary, methodology of Financial Planning. We call it ‘Journey Based Planning’. Our need to create a new approach to Financial Planning stemmed from our belief that Goals Based Planning is fundamentally flawed. Its theoretical value is predicated on the success of an individual (or couple) to identify and articulate their ideal future state – their goals – and in turn, possess both the discipline and wherewithal to follow through with this idealized future state and actualize those same goals. However, a tremendous amount of research has shown that the reality of meaningful success with this approach, is far from certain. Human beings rarely follow through with life changing actions. We simply aren’t wired that way. “If it was easy to accomplish goals, they would stop being called goals and be called what they are: Life!”
Further, but more egregious in our mind, was the notion that even if that same individual (or couple) did indeed follow through and fulfill those stated goals, that in turn, would actually result in greater “happiness” in their lives. Again, the ample supply of data and research does not support this assumption. My partner Jared Rabinowitz has a terrific expression regarding the actualization of reaching a goal, “once the goal is accomplished, you just move the goal post.”
In our ‘Journey Based Planning’ model, we pivoted our focus away from the end state of accomplishing goals - believing this only reinforces a negative view of oneself - as so rarely are the goals fully accomplished. Instead, we prioritize two bedrock principles: First, to articulate and ultimately codify this future state, we need superior tools and exercises that allow our clients to accurately arrive at “the life they choose”. Second, once that idealized life is documented, focus entirely on the steps that need to be taken, (daily, weekly, etc.) to accomplish that result – knowing full well that the idealized future state will morph and change, and that the steps must morph and change correspondingly.
Our overriding belief is that true happiness is realized by the execution on the incremental action items and not on the end results. Stated succinctly, “its not about the end, but rather the steps along the way; the journey”.
We are very proud of this unique approach to planning and have taken the time to digitize/gamify the discovery exercises and tools. More importantly, we’ve seen firsthand the emotional connection our clients experience from engaging in the rigour of this process. We continually remind ourselves that the true value we bring as advisors is to identify: “what the money is for?” The assumption being:
“If we can align the growth of capital with the identification of its purpose, we have brought greater “happiness”
But…if we are being entirely honest with ourselves, this approach begs two introspective questions.
- Do we definitively know that aligning the growth of assets with the purpose of money will arrive at greater joy or happiness?
- Are we really, as financial planners and Portfolio Managers, being hired by our clients to be in the “Happiness Business”?
Certainly, in the time that I have served in this industry (just passing the 25-year mark) the overriding trend has been to move from an investment centric model to that of ‘holistic’ planning. But the definition of ‘holistic’ is anything but defined and in my role as Executive Partner of a large Canadian Portfolio Management firm, I see the inter-workings of close to 100 independent firms annually. I can first-hand attest to the chasm which exists between the sought after, utopian, state of ‘holistic planning’ and the reality of an overwhelmingly, ever present, investment centric industry business model.
That said, one could argue that this phenomenon is merely a by-product of lack of commitment and discomfort on the part of our industry to fully embrace change rather than what is being asked of us by our clients or what our clients feel provides the greatest value to them. But again, challenging our own assumptions, do we know with certainty we have processes and methodologies to provide greater ‘happiness’ to our clients? For that matter, do we even know what greater ‘happiness’ looks like?
Fortunately, as I mentioned, there exists reams of data and studies that delve into the study of “happiness”. Certainly, the most comprehensive and by proxy, most famous is the “The Study of Human Development” at the Harvard Medical School which began in 1938 and has continued to this day. It combines the “The Grant Study” of 268 Harvard undergrads run in tandem with " The Glueck Study” which included a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged non-delinquent inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945. The subjects were all male and of American nationality. The men continue to be studied to this day. The men were evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their physicians, and in many cases by personal interviews. Information was gathered about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience and marital quality.
George Vaillant ran the study for over three decades. Here are the top two lessons Vaillant took from the study specifically pertaining to a happy and meaningful life. First, the most important ingredient for meaning and happiness is loving relationships. Even individuals with successful careers and good physical health were not fulfilled without loving relationships. Second, money and power are small parts of a fulfilling life; they correlate poorly with happiness.
Vaillant’s key takeaway, in his own words: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’
In other words, as an industry, according to Vaillant, we are not armed with much ammunition to aid in the Business of Happiness.
But… I remembered one of my favorite reads in the past few years, “Happiness” by Daniel Kahneman. Yes, the same Daniel Kahneman generally regarded as the forefather of Behavioral Finance for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.
In the book, Kahneman contends that happiness and satisfaction are actually distinct, in effect separate emotions. “Happiness is a momentary experience that arises spontaneously and is fleeting. Meanwhile, satisfaction is a long-term feeling, built over time and based on achieving goals and building the kind of life you admire”.
For example, in Kahneman’s research measuring everyday happiness—the experiences that leave people feeling good—he found that spending time with friends was highly effective. Yet those focused on long-term goals that yield satisfaction don’t necessarily prioritize socializing, as they’re busy with the bigger picture.
Such choices led Kahneman to conclude that we’re not as interested in happiness as we may claim. “Altogether, I don’t think that people maximize happiness in that sense…this doesn’t seem to be what people want to do. They actually want to maximize their satisfaction with themselves and with their lives. And that leads in completely different directions than the maximization of happiness,” he says.
Which is clearly a different way of thinking about what we do for a living. Kahneman agreed with our recognition that achievement of a goal would not provide greater “happiness” in the short term, but it will result in greater long term “satisfaction”. Further, our actions as human beings – what we actually do and are motivated by - seem to indicate that indeed, satisfaction is what we are driven to and desire.
I know we are pursuing the right path with “Journey Based Planning” and our focus on incremental steps. But as my knowledge base continues to expand and as I continually challenge my own belief systems to provide the greatest value to our clients, I realize that the business I am in is:
That makes me happy!