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Mental Wellness

Unpacking Our Lives to Make Room for Happiness

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With the new year almost upon us, it's time to start setting goals—but this year, let's do it differently.

2021 IS ALMOST UPON US. Time to do the age-old activity of setting goals. But this year, let’s do it differently. Let’s unpack and repack our lives into the life we want.

What do you want for your future? What do you pray for?

What do you wish for? What do you tell people you want? What do you feel you deserve?

Write down the answers to those questions. Then rip up the answers.

I spent my career helping people achieve their goals. Sometimes those goals involved money and aspects of financial planning, investments, business management, and career management. These are all areas that I spent my long career involved in. Sometimes in interviews, clients told me that they thought their problems and the solutions to those problems had to do with money—specifically the need to have more money.

I found that it was helpful to give an overview of my view of the world of finance and how it intersected with their lives. This gave us a starting

point so that we could construct a realistic financial plan that was achievable and was sufficiently in alignment with their habits, beliefs, current lifestyle, and financial situation.

I made the following points:

  • We trade time for money.
  • Be smart about credit.
  • Life is about relationships.
  • We need to live our life anchored to our commitments and responsibilities.
  • You can have it all if you give up the suffering caused by attachment, grasping, and obsessing.
  • A good life is a balanced life.
  • Life is lumpy.
  • Your career, job, work has one main function: to support the life you want.

Let’s unpack this. We have only two resources: time and money. (I define money as financial resources like savings, investments, and the part of your home you actually own—not the bank’s interest in your home through a mortgage.) We trade time for money and money for time. A simple example is a dinner out with friends. If it costs $40 and you earn $20 an hour after taxes, 401(k), and your 10 percent tithe, then you need to work two hours for that dinner. Only you can decide if that is worth it.

That dinner might even throw you into unhealthy debt if you are not able to pay it off at the end of the month. Actions have consequences. I find that the main component of financial dysfunction come from our god-given blessing of rationalization. We tell ourselves that we need that dinner, those new shoes, that yoga retreat, that expensive cleanse. We rationalize it by telling ourselves, “I deserve this!” or “My friends do it.” I had a friend who was the chief brand manager for one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies. Cosmetics companies buy stuff by the ton and sell it by the gram, with packaging and marketing expenses usually well in excess of the cost of the ingredients in the products. The brand manager said simply that he wanted his products to say to the consumer, “I am worth it!”

“I am worth it” is the rationalization phrase that seems to get us to set aside our sensibilities and do or buy stuff that we would have passed by if our wiser self was guiding us at that moment. It can place us in debtor’s prison if we allow our debts to pile up, or we become chained to the work grind to support what we call our lifestyle. Often overconsumption leads to overwork so that we have such little time that we allow buying experiences or stuff to compensate for our lack of time with ourselves or others. We end up trying to cram as much experience as possible into the little time we have.

Choices Decide Our Fate

I often paused at this point in my chat with my client and simply said, “Am I making sense? Why do you think people get caught up in consuming things, or spending time working toward buying stuff that won’t feed their soul?”

As I listened to the feedback and stories from the client, I would often ask them another question.

I said simply, “You have two options. Option No. 1 is you can live on the most beautiful island in the world. In your dream house, with everything you could ever want at your disposal. For example, if you wanted a new bed, shoes, or the latest smoothie mix you just typed it into your laptop and by drone, it is delivered straightaway. The only catch is that you cannot ever see, chat with, or communicate with anyone the rest of your life.”

I then would pause and let that settle in. Then I explained that option no. 2 is the life they had now. No one to date has ever said they wanted the island life. I have asked this question to thousands of people over the years in public lectures, workshops, and one-on-one sessions, all with the same result.

What is life if you are not in relationship with someone in it? Life is about relationships. Life is about being in relationship. That is what is important. And relationships take time. So when we are working we are not in relationship (usually) with the ones we love.

Getting Unstuck

“But Paul!” the client would say, “I am stuck! We have this big house. My friends and I need to go out. Life is short. I like good stuff.” I then asked, “Tell me some wonderful memories.” Usually those memories had little to do with money, but a lot to do with time and relationships. Ask your- self: Does an expensive home feed your relationships? Do expensive eye creams or fancy restaurants feed your relationships?

Only you can answer these questions for yourself. Which leads me to the fact that we can have it all, if we take responsibility for our life, and I will add, are realistic about time and what we really want from life. What we want from life usually starts with a desire to not suffer and be happy, which comes from admitting that:

  • Suffering exists.
  • We suffer because we grasp and we cling.
  • We can do something about suffering (and be happy).
  • We can live a balanced (loving, spiritual) life. And I will add, we need to be in relationship.

Love and Happiness

At the core, relationships are about love. Love is expressed best through living a spiritual, balanced life. And we must realize that we are 100 per- cent responsible for our actions and responses to life. We are the creators of our life. No excuses! No victims! We have been dealt our life and we decide what we do with it. My mother’s definition of happiness is “the relaxed enjoyment of life.” We must pursue the ability to relax into life by ridding our- selves of grasping, comparisons, rationalizations, envy, must-haves, silly needs, and such; pursuing a simple life built around what is most important—usually relationships. Note: For you mystics—it can be about having the time to be in relaxed, unhurried solitude with yourself.

Reality and Commitments

At this point in the chat, I would look at the current reality of the person’s life and see children, marriage, friends, and work commitments. We need to keep our commitments. For example, children are like an 18-year meditation retreat. They will set the rhythm of your life and there is no escaping that (without conflict), so that must be accepted as part of your reality. But fancy schools, new clothing, expensive vacations, extravagant summer camps, their own room, a cell phone, and the like are not what make you an effective parent. Time is. Kids need time. Kids need to get relationships right, and like it or not, you are the most wise and impactful teacher of your children.

Have other committed relationships? Nurture them, respect them. If they are not working right now, you can gracefully, with love, communication, empathy, honesty, virtue, and patience, transform them into something that works. If you are in an abusive relationship, exit it as gracefully as you can right now.

We want things simple, but things are not simple. Our life is complex, and everything is connected and interrelated. For example, goals and intentions matter little if your relationships are not right, or if you’re still grasping, clinging, and avoiding your responsibilities. Unhealthy spending or behaviors rationalized by saying “I am worth it,” or clinging to believing you can buy something that will make you happy, will just pull you off the path toward having it all. As you set your intentions and goals for 2021, set a goal of getting something done. Start with yourself. Unpack your life and decide what is essential to your happiness, what you are committed to, and what is unnecessary. You might need help. A fee-only financial advisor can help with the budgeting and financial bit of the many actions that you will take to set your plan in motion.

Subscribers to S&H, if you send me an email I will send the personal finance book Virtue of Wealth to the first 100 people for free. Just tell me you are a subscriber and give me a mailing address. Virtue of Wealth is a do-it-yourself financial success book covering many topics to help you construct a solid financial life that supports the life you want. I only ask that once you are done with Virtue of Wealth you will pass it along so that it is able to do its magic with others.