For most of us, finances are at best a chore and at worst a cause for, sometimes extreme, anxiety. Money is something we struggle to integrate into a healthy approach to life. Because we need it, it causes us anxiety when we don’t have it, because we want it so much, it causes us to feel guilty when we have it, and embarrassment – even shame – when we don’t.

I worked this past weekend with a group of young investors (their company is who are trying to address some of these challenges by leveling the playing field (or marketplace) which is skewed in favor of the wealthy by giving them more advantages in the form of information, tools, advice, etc. They told me they want to empower ordinary people by making the world of investment accessible and understandable. They added that they also want to help people with talent in this field find clients they would never find for themselves for many reasons, including geography.

But these young people want to do more: they want to help people find the deeper things they are really looking for when they engage in investing. For, we are all actually seeking more than financial profits when we go to an investor. In one sense, we are looking for the things that such profits seem to promise, which is happiness or well-being in one way or another. Some of the ways may be obvious and reasonable, like security for the future – retirement, legacy for our kids. Some of them, however, are less obvious, like relationship or peace of mind or joy, which are the things that our money culture has promised in recent years through its marketing and advertising. Madison Avenue has turned money – or at least the things it can buy – into the only way to realize our deepest longings: this car will make you popular; this suit will bring partners flooding to your door; this house will create community. So, when clients come to an investment manager, they are bringing a lot of things along with their request for financial advice. The fact that neither side tends to be aware of what is really at stake makes the relationship extremely challenging but also gives it a new level of responsibility and potential for good.

Financial advisors have to resist subscribing to the illusion that more money will bring happiness. However, they can, in fact, help their clients achieve some of the deeper elements of happiness while at the same time producing the more obvious elements of (greater) financial security. They can do this – as many of them already do – by listening to the personal stories that accompany the information on financial goals. That would almost be enough. But they can do more by helping clients identify their deeper or higher purpose by exploring the often unconscious values that stir their passion (the rights of their grandchildren, for example) that lies beneath the financial goals. They can even help them belong to a group of like-minded people in a way that will support this higher purpose as well as get them a reasonable return on their investment.

It’s all about return on investment, but how we understand the return is critical. And that’s the real contribution an investment manager can make. You might say that this is a lot to lay on an investment manager. Perhaps, but this is a money culture and money is an integral part of everything today, including things that in the past were not part of the world of commerce: like community or recreation.

Investment managers can also join with others in all the professions in the work of making the world a better place. For all of these too have a higher purpose that relates to this general goal. The more obvious professions are teachers, healers, therapists, etc., but, in fact, every profession can join in this higher level of work by seeing it in terms of serving people’s attempts at happiness.

Various teachers from all the spiritual traditions have spoken of doing what you are passionate about as the way to pull together both a sense of higher purpose and a method for achieving the various elements of happiness: Follow your bliss; Seek first the kingdom of God; Learn how to listen as things speak for themselves; In your innermost being you know who you are and you know what you want. Begin with your passion in other words – the thing that brought you into the work in the first place (even if you made other choices for various reasons) – and let it (re)surface your higher purpose and produce the (various kinds of) satisfaction it can, including financial returns.

There are, of course, some who are more directly – professionally even – engaged in the theory and practice of happiness: the spiritual teachers of various kinds. But all of us are in the business of happiness, and every profession is essentially about service of the world they all share in some form. By highlighting this higher purpose they can not only do their work better, whatever it is, but also enhance their own satisfaction: their own return on investment.

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  1. John Chambers says:

    One of your best single sentences in any blog thus far: “It’s all about return on investment, but how we understand the return is critical.”

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