“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

 The fox to the Little Prince, Little Prince Book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943 

This quote may be familiar to you as you may have read this book to a child or grandchild.  It was new to me.  I had to wait 54 years to hear it and from the most unexpected place- a financial planning conference in Austin, Texas.  Admittedly, the subtitle of the conference was “The Heart of Advice”, so I should have expected something different.

Before you jump to any conclusions, it was not touchy feely, nor did we give each other back rubs or share any secrets.  However, we did spend a good portion of the three days on what the fox considers essential: that which is invisible to the eye.

For those of you who know me, you know that this is an area with which I am not uncomfortable (I know I used a double negative, as it was for effect).  It is an area which I have a great interest.  I have been accused of being sensitive and empathetic which I will accept gladly.  The field of finance is filled with cold-hearted lunk heads* of which I have never been one.

At the conference we had a talk by Dr. Brynn Winegard, PhD in Neuroscience. She discussed how the brain works in the context of behavioral finance, and how we (as humans) make decisions and are prone to make mistakes.  This is a subject which I find to be very interesting. It gives great insight into how wondrously powerful our brains are and how genetically they are wired to protect us from danger.  Think of fight or flight in the event of an attack by a sabre toothed tiger.  What worked for our ancestors thousands of years ago to keep the species alive may not be what works in a modern world when a recession strikes or an apparent attack of the stock market kind.

If that wasn’t enough, we learned how “money messages” are formed in us as children.  These are the tapes playing in our heads which determine our attitude and beliefs about money.  For example, “rich people are rude and arrogant; they only think of themselves,” or “I am no good with money, it seems to slip through my fingers,” or “I will never have enough money; we are one crisis away from bankruptcy.”  These money messages are subconscious and therefore not rational or true, but they impact our behavior.  And, it is the behavior which causes the problems.

While at the conference we also learned from Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, about happiness and how better to achieve it.  The conventional view is that happiness is just on the other side of a goal.  We believe, “Once I get the promotion, then I will be happy,” and “When I get married, have kids, buy a house, then I will be happy.”  The problem is that once we hit those targets, we continuously move the goalposts to a new goal. Consequently, happiness is always on the other side of our achievement.  The reality is, we need to reframe happiness to an attitude which we can control.

There are practices that we can incorporate into our daily life which will quantifiably improve our happiness. You may have noticed our “gratitude” jar in our conference room.  This is an office activity with which we daily write down three unique things we are grateful for, fold it up and stuff it in the jar.  There is power in writing it down and also in visually seeing this jar chock full of slips of paper.  Another proven winner is sending a text or email (or note) to a different person in your life each day to thank them for how they have been a blessing in your life.  Think of that teacher who lit the spark of passion in your studies or that coach who first saw potential in your efforts.  There is no magic formula for happiness. However, our attitude is completely within our control, which leads to an improvement in our outlook and happiness.

I took about 100 pages of notes at the conference and added six more books to my reading list for this fall.  Sometimes it is good to take a few steps back and focus on the essential; that which is invisible to the eye.

*not all people in finance are cold hearted or lunk heads, this was a generalization used for a literary purpose only.