Why outcomes beat fear

Crosby_2015-150x150Dr. Daniel Crosby Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

It seems to be human nature to be fascinated by pathology. Sigmund Freud began his study of the human psyche by outlining how it was broken (hint: your Mom) and the discipline continued down that path for over a century. It was roughly 150 years before the study of clinical psychology was offset at all by the study of what we now call “positive psychology” – the study of what makes us happy, strong, and exceptional. Perhaps it is no surprise then that behavioral finance too began with the study of the anomalous and is only now coming around to a more solution-focused ideal. While a thorough review of the transition from efficient to behavioral approaches isn’t why we are here, it’s worth considering the rudiments of these ideas and how we can improve upon them.

For decades, the prevailing economic theories espoused a view of Economic Man as rational, utility maximizing, and self-interested. On these simple (if unrealistic) assumptions, economists built mathematical models of exceeding elegance but limited real-world applicability. It all worked beautifully, until it didn’t. Goaded only by a belief in the predictability of Economic Man, The Smartest People in the Room picked up pennies in front of steamrollers – until they got flattened.

On the strength of hedge fund implosions, multiple manias with accompanying crashes and mounting evidence of human irrationality, Economic Man begin to give way to Behavioral Man. Behavioral proponents began to document the flaws of investors with the same righteous zeal with which proponents of market efficiency had previously defended the aggregate wisdom of the crowd. At my last count, psychologists and economists had uncovered 117 documented biases capable of obscuring lucid financial decision-making. One hundred and seventeen different ways for you to get it wrong.

But the problem with all this Ivory Tower philosophizing is that none of it truly helps investors. For a clinical psychologist, a diagnosis is a necessary but far from sufficient part of a treatment plan. No shrink worth his $200 an hour would label you pathological and show you the door, yet that is largely what behavioral finance has given the investing public: a surfeit of pathology and a shortage of outcomes.

To consider firsthand the futility of being told only what not to do, let’s try the following.

“Do not think of a pink elephant.”

What happened as you read the first sentence of this section? Odds are, you did the very thing I asked you not to do – you imagined a pink elephant. How disappointing! You could have imagined any number of things – you had infinity minus one option – and yet you still disobeyed my simple request. Sigh. Oh well, I haven’t given up on you yet, so let’s try one more time.

“Do not, whatever you do, imagine a large purple elephant with a parasol daintily tiptoeing across a highwire connecting two tall buildings in a large metropolitan area.”

You did it again, didn’t you?

All feigned anger aside, what you just experienced was the very natural tendency to imagine and even ruminate on something, even when you know you oughtn’t. Consider the person on a diet who has created a lengthy list of “bad” foods. He may, for instance, repeat the mantra, “I will not eat a cookie. I will not eat a cookie. I will not eat a cookie.” any time he experiences the slightest temptation.

But what is the net effect of all his self-flagellating rumination? Effectively he has thought about cookies all day and is likely to cave at the first sign of an Oreo. The research is unequivocal that a far more effective approach is to reorient that behavior into something desirable rather than repeat messages of self-denial that ironically keep the “evil” object top of mind. Unfortunately for investors in a panic, there are far more histrionic “Don’t do this!” messages than constructive “Do this instead”, which is where The Center for Outcomes comes in. At the Brinker Capital Center for Outcomes, we have taken behavioral finance out of the textbooks and are putting it in the hands of advisors where it belongs. By utilizing our empirically-based, four-step process, advisors are given specific tools for communicating with clients in a persuasive manner. Click here to learn how to say “Yes” to outcomes.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Opinions represented are not intended as an offer or solicitation with respect to the purchase or sale of any security and are subject to change without notice.  

Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor. 

Investment Insights Podcast: Investing a lump sum of cash

Raupp_F_150x150
Jeff Raupp, CFA
Director of Investments

On this week’s podcast (recorded April 20, 2018),
Jeff discusses the pros and cons of investing a lump sum immediately versus systematically investing an equal amount monthly.

Quick hits:

  • Almost 75% of the time an investor did better with the lump sum investment, with an average return after 12 months of about 8%, versus 4.2% for systematic investing.
  • A systematic plan may make sense for some, as it establishes a strategy for getting into the markets and takes emotion out of the equation.

For Jeff’s full insights, click here to listen to the audio recording.

investment podcast (25)

Performance returns source: Brinker Capital.
The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.

Investment Insights Podcast: 1 in 9.2 quintillion

Chris HartSenior Vice President

On this week’s podcast (recorded March, 16 2018), Chris talks about the parallels between March Madness and investing.

 

Quick hits:

  • Much like the task of filling out a perfect bracket, which currently stands at 1 in 9.2 quintillion, the chances of correctly predicting drivers of future returns is nearly impossible even for skilled investors.
  • Many have heard the term momentum in the stock markets, and behavioral finance will tell you that novice investors chase performance by allocating to last year’s winners under the guise that results for this year will be the same.
  • While picking the occasional upset is possible, most of the time fans are wrong relying on intuition or gut feel to pick an upset, and it costs them.
  • Brinker Capital knows how difficult it is to achieve successful outcomes, and has investment disciplines in place to help protect and build wealth over the long term.

For the rest of Chris’s insight, click here to listen to the audio recording.

investment podcast (23)

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

The financial advisor as emotional coach?

Crosby_2015-150x150Dr. Daniel Crosby Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

One of the reasons psychologists can charge $200 per hour to ask, “How does that make you feel?” is because we have become great at putting fancy-pants labels on things that would otherwise be very intuitive. Take for instance the tongue-twisting “affect heuristic,” which is simply a reference to our tendency to perceive the world through the lens of whatever mood we are in.

For example, when giving a seminar on risk assessment, I often ask participants to write down the word, that if it were spelled phonetically, would be “dahy.” Go on, write it down and don’t over think it. It turns out the way you spelled the word has a lot to do with the kind of day you are having. Those that spelled the word as “die” may need a hug, while those that spelled the word “dye” are probably doing fine.

Ask someone having a bad day (those that wrote “die,” I’m looking at you) about their childhood and they are likely to tell you how they were chubby, had pimples, and never got picked first for kickball. Conversely, ask someone having a good day about their childhood and they are likely to recall summers in Nantucket and triple dips from the Tastee Freeze. Memory and perception are moving targets colored by our mood, not infallible retrieval and evaluation machines through which we make unbiased decisions.

financial advisor as emotional coach

So, what is the moral of all of this psychobabble? Think back to the last time you went shopping when you were hungry. Once you’ve brought that to mind, think back on the contents of your shopping cart. If you’re like me, you probably had a whole mess of HoHos, DingDongs, Nutty Buddies and Diet Coke (you don’t want to get fat, after all), but nothing very healthy or substantive.

The same rules apply to any life decision requiring risk assessment; if you try to make decisions when you are happy/sad/angry/in love/anxious/worried/euphoric, you are likely to end up with a life full of junk. When speaking to investors about the affect heuristic, I borrow an acrostic from the addiction literature – H.A.L.T. – which stands for hungry, angry, lonely or tired. The 12 step and other programs encourage those in recovery not to make decisions when they are in any of the emotional states described in H.A.L.T. and this advice is just as sound for investors. You do not view investment risk independent of your emotional state and so making long-term financial decisions in a short-term elevated emotional state should be avoided altogether. For help avoiding excessive emotion, try one of the following:

  • Exercise vigorously
  • Redefine the problem in terms of longer-term goals
  • Limit intake of caffeine and alcohol
  • Talk to a friend or your financial advisor
  • Don’t react right away
  • Shift the focus of your attention
  • Label your emotions
  • Write down your thoughts and feelings
  • Challenge catastrophic thoughts
  • Control whatever aspects possible including diversification and fees

The Center for Outcomes, powered by Brinker Capital Holdings, has developed an educational program to help advisors employ the value of behavioral alpha across all aspects of their work – from business development to client service and retention. To learn more about The Center for Outcomes and Brinker Capital, call us at 800.333.4573.

Brinker Capital is a privately held investment management firm with $21.7 billion in assets under management (as of December 31, 2017). For 30 years, Brinker Capital’s purpose has been to deliver an institutional multi-asset class investment experience to individual clients. Brinker Capital’s highly strategic, disciplined approach has provided investors the potential to achieve their long-term goals while controlling risk. With a focus on wealth creation and management, Brinker Capital serves financial advisors and their clients by providing high-quality investment manager due diligence, asset allocation, portfolio construction, and client communication services. Brinker Capital, Inc. is a registered investment advisor.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.

 

The do’s and don’ts for periods of market volatility

Crosby_2015-150x150Dr. Daniel Crosby Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

We know it has been a stressful week for everyone involved in the market. In times like this, knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do. Therefore, we created a list of things you should and shouldn’t be doing in periods of market volatility.

Do:

  • Do know your history
    • Despite what political pundits and TV commentators would have you believe, this is not an unusually scary time to be alive. Although you would never know it from watching cable, the economy is growing and most quality of life statistics have been headed in the right direction for years! Markets always have and always will climb a wall of worry, rewarding those who stay the course and punishing those who succumb to fear. Warren Buffet expressed this beautifully when he said, “In the 20th century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shock; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president. Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497.” Such it has ever been, thus will it ever be.
  • Do take responsibility
    • Which of the following do you think is most predictive of financial performance: a) market timing b) investment returns or c) financial behavior? Ask most men or women on the street and they are likely to tell you that timing and returns are the biggest drivers of financial performance, but the research tells you another story. In fact, the research says that you – that’s right – you, are the best friend and the worst enemy of your own portfolio. What happens in the financial markets in the coming years is absolutely out of your control. But, your ability to follow a plan, diversify across asset classes, and maintain your composure is squarely within your own power. At times when market moves can feel haphazard, it helps to remember who is really in charge.
  • Do work with a professional
    • Odds are that when you chose your financial advisor, you selected him or her because of his or her academic pedigree, years of experience, or a sound investment philosophy. Ironically, what you likely overlooked entirely is the largest value he or she adds – managing your behavior. Studies from across the industry put the added value from working with an advisor at 2 to 3% per year. Compound that effect over a lifetime and the power of financial advice quickly becomes evident.

Don’t:

  • Don’t equate risk with volatility
    • Repeat after me, “volatility does not equal risk.” Risk is the likelihood that you will not have the money you need at the time you need it to live the life you want to live. Nothing more, nothing less. Paper losses are not “risk” and neither are the gyrations of a volatile market.
  • Don’t focus on the minute-to-minute
    • Despite the enormous wealth-creating power of the market, looking at it too closely can be terrifying. A daily look at portfolio values means you see a loss 46.7% of the time, whereas a yearly look shows a loss merely 27.6% of the time. Limited looking leads to increase feelings of security and improved decision-making.
  • Don’t give into action bias
    • At most times and in most situations, increased effort leads to improved outcomes. Want to lose weight? Start running. Want to learn a new skill set? Go back to school. Investing is that rare world where doing less actually gets you more. James O’Shaughnessy of “What Works on Wall Street” relates an illustrative story of a study done at Fidelity. When they surveyed their accounts to see which had done best, they uncovered something counterintuitive: the best-performing stocks were those that had been forgotten entirely.

The Center for Outcomes, powered by Brinker Capital Holdings, has developed an educational program to help advisors employ the value of behavioral alpha across all aspects of their work – from business development to client service and retention. To learn more about The Center for Outcomes and Brinker Capital, call us at 800.333.4573.

Brinker Capital is a privately held investment management firm with $21.7 billion in assets under management (as of December 31, 2017). For 30 years, Brinker Capital’s purpose has been to deliver an institutional multi-asset class investment experience to individual clients. Brinker Capital’s highly strategic, disciplined approach has provided investors the potential to achieve their long-term goals while controlling risk. With a focus on wealth creation and management, Brinker Capital serves financial advisors and their clients by providing high-quality investment manager due diligence, asset allocation, portfolio construction, and client communication services. Brinker Capital, Inc. is a registered investment advisor.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.

 

 

 

There will never be a perfect time to invest

Crosby_2015-150x150Dr. Daniel Crosby Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

Consider something you’ve always wanted to do but that you’ve put off doing because it scares you. In fact, just think of something you’d eventually like to do but haven’t yet, since you may not even be aware of all your reasons for not having embarked on that journey just yet. Maybe that something is having a child. Maybe it’s starting a business. Or perhaps it’s writing a book, getting serious with a romantic partner, or any number of other aspirations you’ve yet to reach. Let’s say for discussion’s sake that the thing you are considering is starting a business. You ask yourself…

“Should I or shouldn’t I start a business?”

Easy enough, right? You make a t-chart, list the pros and cons and then make a decision! Well, let’s examine how you go about dissecting this question. You do your best to dispassionately weigh the pros and perils, but if you’re like most folks (and you are, remember, you’re not special) there is a flaw in the system. Drawing on his background in evolutionary psychology, James Friedrich has concluded that as we evaluate important decisions in our life, our primary aim is to avoid the most costly errors. That is, we make decisions that make us “not unhappy” rather than “blissful.” We want to be “not broke” more than we want to live abundantly. To use the above-mentioned example, you’re far more likely to focus on the potential perils of failing at business than you are the happiness and freedom that might accrue to you.

Never a good time to invest

The evolutionary roots of this system of self-preservation make sense. It was not all that long ago (in terms of evolutionary time) that our forebears were called upon daily to make life and death decisions. For people living on the savannahs of Africa, choosing to zig when you should have zagged could spell the end. Historically, decision-making has been very wrapped up in preserving physical safety and ensuring that physical needs were met. In this life-and-death scenario, minimizing risk at the expense of self-actualization is only logical. However, in the intervening millennia, things have changed and our thought patterns have not kept pace. At least in the US, we now live in a service economy that produces more ideas than it does “things.” We have moved from an agrarian to an industrial to a knowledge-based economy and our ability to cope with personal stressors has not kept pace.

What we are left with is a brain and a decision-making modality that is ill-suited for our modern milieu. We are programmed to choose safety, even at the expense of joy, in an environment where safety abounds and joy is hard to find. Daniel Kahneman and others have shown that people are twice as upset about a loss as they are pleased about a gain. Unless we learn to train our brains to evaluate risk and reward on a more even keel, we will remain trapped in a life of risk-aversion that keeps us from taking the very risks that might make us happy.

Because of the asymmetrical means by which we evaluated risk, it could be truthfully and plainly said that there is never a good time to invest…or have a baby…or start a business…or fall in love. After all, each of these requires us to make ourselves vulnerable, either personally, financially or both, to an unknown future with a very real downside. Markets crash, kids talk back, and businesses fail. But a life lived in shades of grey is the only thing less satisfactory than a life lived at risk of loss. There will always be worries, some founded, others not and investors who are paying attention will never have a sense that it is “all clear.” This uncertainty, this pervasive not knowing, is the hallmark of both life and capital markets and those that have mastered both come to love and embrace it.

The Center for Outcomes, powered by Brinker Capital, has prepared a system to help advisors employ the value of behavioral alpha across all aspects of their work – from business development to client service and retention. To learn more about The Center for Outcomes and Brinker Capital, call us at 800-333-4573.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.

Top blog posts of 2017

We’re closing out the year with our top five blog posts of 2017. From retirement and behavioral finance, to in-depth market perspectives, these are the best of 2017. Enjoy!

Jeff Raupp, CFARaupp_Podcast_Graphic, Director of Investments

Investment Insights Podcast: Where markets go from here now that they’ve rallied post-election

 

 

CookPaul-150-x-150

Paul Cook, AIF®, Vice President and Regional Director, Retirement Plan Services

Avoiding retirement regrets

A dozen steps to a smooth transition to retirement

 

Crosby_2015-150x150Dr. Daniel CrosbyExecutive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

Can money buy happiness?

Purchasing power and the big power of small changes

Purchasing power and the big power of small changes

Crosby_2015Dr. Daniel Crosby Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore” — Yogi Berra

Odds are, you’re now familiar with the Parable of the Boiling Frog. A story that posits that a frog dropped in boiling water will hop right out of the pot, but that one placed in tepid water that is gradually raised to boiling will meet its demise. The absolute veracity of this metaphor is questionable, but the illustrative quality of the narrative is beyond reproach. The fact is, slow, incremental change can be damaging to us in profound ways. The imperceptibility of these changes leaves us helpless to react, and we only become aware of what’s happening once it is too late.

Sadly, there is a “boiling frog” dynamic at play in the way you think about money, something behavioral economists call the “money illusion.” As best described by Shafir, Diamond and Tversky, the money illusion “refers to a tendency to think in terms of nominal rather than real monetary values.”

In a nutshell, we think of numbers in a way that is disconnected from their purchasing power, and in doing so can make irrational personal financial decisions. Consider the ways in which a six-figure salary or being a millionaire are still considered useful shorthand for wealth. While these may have been meaningful distinctions in say, the ’70s and even eye-popping in the ’20s, they simply don’t mean what they used to because of inflation and decreased purchasing power. The fact is that going forward, multimillionaire status will be required of even middle-class Americans who want to retire with peace of mind.

purchasing power

Inflation creep is slow and insidious, just like the proverbial boiling water, and just like the water, it can have lasting detrimental effects. Consider Yale professor Robert Shiller’s comments on the money illusion as we mentally account for our housing purchases,

“Since people are likely to remember the price they paid for their house from many years ago, but remember few other prices from then, they have the mistaken impression that home prices have gone up more than other prices, giving a mistakenly exaggerated impression of the investment potential of houses.”

Thus, people may overextend themselves to get into an expensive house, hoping for a large nominal return over the years, never realizing that the numbers they are looking at may not even be keeping up with inflation.

While getting in over your head on a home represents excessively risky behavior precipitated by the money illusion, it can just as soon lead to inappropriate risk aversion. Consider the “flight to safety” that occurs during most economic downturns. Investors flood into treasuries, which may not even keep up with inflation, while ignoring equities, which are at their greatest value in years. Truly conceptualized, nothing could be less safe than putting your assets in a class that minimizes purchasing power. By conceptualizing assets in nominal terms instead of “real dollars,” investors irrationally lock in an absolute loss in their efforts to protect against a nominal one.

Financial professionals can help their clients understand purchasing power in a way that is aligned with their individual desires and aspirations. Advisers should emphasize that investors can be lured into focusing on illusory numbers that have little impact on their ability to meet their own needs. As we’ve seen, incremental negative changes can be as bad for your financial future as they are for a frog’s health.

The Center for Outcomes, powered by Brinker Capital, has prepared a system to help advisors employ the value of behavioral alpha across all aspects of their work – from business development to client service and retention. To learn more about The Center for Outcomes and Brinker Capital, call us at 800-333-4573.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Are you worrying about the wrong things?

Crosby_2015-150x150Dr. Daniel Crosby Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

Take a moment and imagine the person you love the most. Perhaps it’s your spouse or partner; maybe it’s a beloved parent. If that person is near, I’d like for you to put the phone or tablet down and go give them a big hug. Tell them how much you appreciate them and all the reasons why you love them. If they aren’t proximal, say a small prayer of thanks or think good thoughts about the positive impact they have in your life before you return to reading. Go on…

…You back now? Ok, great, welcome back.

Now, I want you to realize that the person you’ve just spent the last few minutes idolizing is more likely to kill you than any stranger, terrorist, or bogeyman. In fact, your appendix is more likely to off you than Al Qaida or ISIS. We tend to fear all the wrong things. We’re scared of high-profile, low probability threats like terrorist attacks and home invasions, but we routinely ignore more mundane but probabilistic hazards like not wearing a seatbelt or eating unhealthily. In general, we stink at assessing risk in many predictable ways – chief among them is our tendency to worry disproportionately about low-probability-high-salience events.

Quick! Name all the words you can that begin with the letter “K.” Go on, I’m not listening. How many were you able to come up with? 

Now, name all the words you can in which K is the third letter. How many could you name this time?

If you are like most people, you found it easier to generate a list of words that begin with K; the words probably came to you more quickly and were more plentiful in number. But, did you know that there are three times as many words in which K is the third letter than there are that start with K? If that’s the case, why is it so much easier to create a list of words that start with K?

It turns out that our mind’s retrieval process is far from perfect, and a number of biases play into our ability to recall. Psychologists call this fallibility in your memory retrieval mechanism the “availability heuristic,” which simply means that we predict the likelihood of an event based on things we can easily call to mind. Unfortunately for us, the imperfections of the availability heuristic are hard at work as we attempt to gauge the riskiness of different ways of living.

In addition to having a memory better suited to recall things at the beginning and the end of a list, we are also better able to envision things that are scary. I know this first hand. Roughly six years ago, I moved to the North Shore of Hawaii along with my wife for a six-month internship. Although our lodging was humble, we were thrilled to be together in paradise and eager to immerse ourselves in all the local culture and natural beauty it had to offer. That is, until I watched “Shark Week.”

For the uninitiated, “Shark Week” is the Discovery Channel’s seven-day documentary programming binge featuring all things finned and scary. A typical program begins by detailing sharks’ predatory powers, refined over eons of evolution, as they are brought to bear on the lives of some unlucky surfers. As the show nears its end, the narrator typically makes the requisite plea for appreciating these noble beasts, a message that has inevitably been over- ridden by the previous 60 minutes of fear mongering.

For one week straight, I sat transfixed by the accounts of one-legged surfers undeterred by their ill fortune (“Gotta get back on the board, dude”) and waders who had narrowly escaped with their lives. Heretofore an excellent swimmer and ocean lover, I resolved at the end of that week that I would not set foot in Hawaiian waters. And indeed, I did not. So, traumatized was I by the availability of bad news that I found myself unable to muster the courage to snorkel, dive or do any of the other activities I had so looked forward to just a week ago.

In reality, the chance of a shark attacking me was virtually nonexistent. The odds of me getting away with murder (about 1 in 2), being made a Saint (about 1 in 20 million) and having my pajamas catch fire (about 1 in 30 million), were all exponentially greater than me being bitten by a shark (about 1 in 300 million). My perception of risk was warped wildly by my choice to watch a program that played on human fear for ratings and my actions played out accordingly.

The easy availability of financial news (especially the scary kind) paired with the human tendency to overweight danger means that many investors walk around in a state of near-panic all the time. All the while, they are ignoring things that are truly damaging wealth over time like bad behavior, excessive fees, a lack of diversification and inadequate savings. It is only by understanding how our brains can play tricks that we truly grasp that panic selling is more hazardous than a recession just as surely as a hamburger can be more harmful than a shark.

The Center for Outcomes, powered by Brinker Capital, has prepared a system to help advisors employ the value of behavioral alpha across all aspects of their work – from business development to client service and retention. To learn more about The Center for Outcomes and Brinker Capital, call us at 800-333-4573.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

 

Can money buy happiness?

Crosby_2015-150x150 Dr. Daniel Crosby Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.” – Henry David Thoreau

In your Psych 100 class, you were likely introduced to the concept of “operationalization,” where one concrete variable serves as proxy for a fuzzier, harder to measure construct. It is no secret that for many, the amount of wealth they have amassed serves as shorthand for happiness, but such is hardly the case. While wealth is positively correlated with well-being to a point, disconnecting money from purpose is a formula for emotional bankruptcy. One such self-delusional variant of chasing money for happiness is the “I’ll stop ignoring my happiness when I reach XYZ number.” Your magic number may be a salary or it may be a wished-for dollar amount to have in the bank. Whatever it is, I can promise you that when you get there, it won’t seem like enough. You see, we are not conditioned to think of money in terms of “enough.” As one of my clients once said to me, “Doc, you can never be too rich or too skinny.”

The scientific name for this phenomenon is the “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation,” referring to the fact that we must make more and more money to keep our level of happiness in the same place. What tends to happen is that our expectations rise and fall with our earnings (as well as other circumstances in our life), keeping our happiness at a relatively stable place. To demonstrate this effect, I’d like for you to consider two groups that seemingly have little in common – paraplegics and lottery winners.

Can money buy happiness

 
Suppose I asked you, “Which would make you happier, winning the lottery or being in a crippling accident?” Not too tough, right? So, we would hypothesize that one-year after the life-changing event, lottery winners would be much happier and paraplegics would be much sadder. But this is simply not the case. One year after their respective events, it makes little difference whether you are riding in a Bentley or a wheelchair – happiness levels remain relatively static.

Why? We tend to overpredict the impact of external events on our happiness. One year later, paraplegics have discovered their accidents were not as catastrophic as they may have feared and have coped accordingly. Similarly, lottery winners have found out that having money brings with it a variety of complications. No amount of spending can take away some of the tough things life throws at each and every one of us. As the saying goes, “wherever you go, there you are.” In much the same way, we tend to project forward to a hypothesized happier time, when we have more money in the bank or are making a bigger salary. The fact of the matter is, when that day arrives, we are unlikely to recognize it and will simply project forward once again, hoping in vain that something outside of ourselves will come and make it all better.

A recent Princeton study set out to answer the age-old question, “Can money buy happiness?” Their answer? Sort of. Researchers found that making little money did not cause sadness in and of itself but it did tend to heighten and exacerbate existing worries. For instance, among people who were divorced, 51 percent of those who made less than $1,000 a month reported having felt sad or stressed the previous day, whereas that number fell to 24 percent among those earning more than $3,000 a month. Having more money seems to provide those undergoing adversities with greater security and resources for dealing with their troubles. However, the researchers found that this effect (mitigating the impact of difficulty) largely disappears at $75,000.

For those making more than $75,000 a year, individual differences have much more to do with happiness than money. While the study does not make any specific inferences as to why $75,000 is the magic number, I’d like to take a stab at it. Most families making $75,000 a year have enough to live in a safe home, attend quality schools, and have appropriate leisure time. Once these basic needs are met, quality of life has less to do with buying happiness and more to do with individual attitudes. After all, someone who makes $750,000 can buy a faster car than someone who makes $75,000, but his or her ability to get from point A to point B is not substantially improved. Once our basic financial needs are met, the rest is up to us. Hard work provides the means, but we must find our meaning.

If happiness does not come from hitting the lottery and sadness is not borne of personal tragedy, what does make us happy? Well, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how well-adjusted your parents are), a great deal of happiness comes from our “hedonic set point,” which is genetically determined. A ten-year, longitudinal study of 1,093 identical twins found that between 44 percent and 52 percent of subjective wellbeing is accounted for by genetic factors. So, roughly half of what makes you happy is out of your control I’m sorry to say.

Of the remaining 50 percent, roughly 10 percent is due to external circumstances and a whopping 40 percent is due to intentional activities, or the choices we make and the purpose we create. We discussed before how we tend to overrate the importance of the things that happen to us, and sure enough, only 10 percent of what makes us happy is accounted for by lucky and unlucky breaks. Eighty percent of the non-genetic components of happiness can be controlled by our attitude and by making choices that are consistent with finding true joy. The first step in this pursuit is ensuring that the goals we are setting for ourselves are consistent with finding true happiness.

If 80 percent of the happiness that is in our control comes from setting and working toward positive goals, what sort of goals should we be setting? Headey has found that goals focused on enriching relationships and social resources are likely to increase wellbeing. We connect with a number of close friends and find joy within those relationships. On the other hand, he found that goals based around monetary achievement have a negative effect on overall wellbeing. Unlike friendship, which we “consume” in limited but satisfying quantities, we feel as though we can never really reach a financial goal. Having a core group of close friends sates us; it is sufficient to meet our social needs and we do not pine for ever-greater numbers of friends. Not so with financial goals; just as we reach our former goal, the hedonic treadmill kicks in and our excitement over having “arrived” is gone in an instant. Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a happiness expert at Harvard University, says that pursuing wealth at the expense of more satisfying goals has a high opportunity cost. “When people spend their effort pursuing material goods in the belief that they will bring happiness, they’re ignoring other, more effective routes to happiness.” The simple fact is this: chasing money and material goods is an itch that our flawed psychology will never let us scratch, unless we can define our financial goals in terms of the personal ends they will meet.

In a money-obsessed world that has socialized us to chase the almighty dollar, it can be weirdly unsettling to learn that money isn’t everything. As much as we whine about money, having something that is the physical embodiment of happiness is nice. We can hold it, save it, get more of it, all while mistakenly thinking that getting paid is how we “arrive.” Realizing that money does not directly equate to meaning can leave us with a sense of groundlessness, but once we’ve stripped away that faulty foundation, we can replace it with things that lead to less evanescent feelings of happiness. Breaking your overreliance on money as a substitute for real joy is a great first step, a second step is learning to spend your wealth in ways that matter.

Lest we swing from the extreme of “money is the only good” to the opposite extreme of “money is no good,” it is worth noting that there are ways in which money can be spent to improve happiness. A lot of our troubles with money stem from the way we spend it, thinking that buying “things” will make us happy. We engage in retail therapy, which is quickly followed by feelings of regret at being overextended. Before we know it, we’re surrounded by the relics of our discontent; the things we bought to be happy become constant reminders that we’re not. Instead of amassing a museum of junk, spend your money on things of real value. Spend a little more on quality, healthy food and take the time to savor your new purchases. Use your money to invest in a dream – pay yourself to take a little time off and write that novel about which you’ve always dreamt. Give charitably and experience the joy of watching those less fortunate benefit from your wealth. A growing body of research suggests that the most important way in which money makes us happy is when we give it away. Finally, spend money on having special experiences with your loved ones. It’s true that money doesn’t directly buy happiness, but it can do a great deal to facilitate it if you approach it correctly.

The Center for Outcomes, powered by Brinker Capital, has prepared a system to help advisors employ the value of behavioral alpha across all aspects of their work – from business development to client service and retention. To learn more about The Center for Outcomes and Brinker Capital, call us at 800-333-4573.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.