The Mindful Money Guide: Creating Harmony Between Your Values and Your Finances

The Mindful Money Guide: Creating Harmony Between Your Values and Your Finances


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345430502
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/1999
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.48(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.70(d)

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If everyone knows that true wealth can't be measured in dollars, why is it so hard to live that way?

Pity the soul who thinks the bumper sticker slogan whoever dies with the most toys wins is a philosophy of life and not a spoof. And yet, if you're like me, walk on down the road a bit and, before you know it, you've forgotten the joke--coveting a farmhouse with pond and views, buttering up a rich uncle, or envying a friend's promotion and bonus. If we really know better, why does materialism have such a grip on us? Why is it so difficult to stop seeing the world in terms of money--who has it, who doesn't, what things cost--even when we've made a conscious decision not to do so?

Answering these questions is the first step to real change. Without understanding the forces acting on--and within--us, we're lost, unlikely ever to find our way. Looking at the place money has carved in our psyche is like looking at a map: we can see both where we are and whether alternative routes are possible--and if so, how rough those roads will be. Without this overview, we're unlikely to have the stamina and faith to stay with any path but the one we've always followed.

Social critics and alternative press columnists have traditionally blamed our rampant materialism on advertising. It does seem to be the obvious culprit: the ad industry manufactures product envy and material desires around the clock, pumping billions and billions of promotional messages into the air each year. Like acid rain, something is bound to sink in. How shocking is an epidemic of "affluenza" when the average teenager is exposed to 360,000 TV commercials before graduating from highschool?

What is surprising, however, is that marketing watchdogs never truly question why advertising works. Why does seeing a sports car or deluxe Cuisinart make us want it? Pointing to quick-cut camera techniques, unshakable jingles, and fulsome models isn't enough. Consumerism spread in Eastern Europe even when commercials were illegal; nomads in the Borneo rain forest, who've never seen a television, treasure Michael Jordan T-shirts, digital wristwatches, and batteries. Even if PBS took over the world's airwaves, people would still want stuff for comfort, convenience, security, and status.

Of course, I'm not about to defend the ad industry. Advertising does turn up the materialistic heat around here and reinforces our most superficial and hedonistic qualities. I'm as happy to bash Madison Avenue as the next guy, but the politically incorrect truth is, advertising doesn't so much create desires as exploit them. We had acquisitive instincts long before Ogilvy & Mather unleashed an army of copywriters.

Spend some time with any three-year-old and we remember that no one had to teach us to be possessive and grabby. Go back even further to our first ancestors and it makes sense why that should be. By looking at our original design, it's possible to gain some insights into how money got so deeply intertwined with our psyches.

Evolutionary biologists tell us that our genetic makeup hasn't changed in forty thousand years. Our bodies and minds evolved for a life of hunting and gathering and cohabitating in small, related, nomadic groups. Our fundamental drives are the same as those that propelled our Paleolithic cousins.

In that light it's clear why three-year-olds grab stuff: it helps them make it to age four and beyond. An acquisitive instinct is a survival mechanism. Back when high tech meant flint and sharp spears, the impulse to acquire tools, weapons, and objects helped make us safer and more comfortable, with little or no downside. It's only when an overabundance of stuff is available that acquisitiveness causes problems. We're simply not designed for a world with endless consumer choice and constantly improving technology (while drawn to it at the same time).

Advanced technology and a sophisticated economy confuse many of our natural impulses. In a cash economy, money becomes the means of satisfying lots of urges: our impulse for comfort leads us to make monthly sofa payments; the desire for security is fed with IRA contributions; craving respect translates into seeking a higher-paying job. But it doesn't end there. Need to relax? That'll take a country house or a trip to the Caribbean. Got the urge to reproduce? Even that seems easier if you've got a big bankroll. So instead of paying attention to our real needs and working to fulfill them directly, we channel much of that energy into chasing money.

Not surprisingly, this doesn't work so well. Once we have the basics of food, shelter, and a modicum of possessions (which, no doubt, was all our acquisitive instinct was "meant" to accomplish), further pursuit of wealth puts us on a desire treadmill and becomes a diversion from the existential and emotional issues we face. In some ways we're more stuck in a survival mode than our earliest relatives, spending more time hunting dollars than they did chasing antelope. Anthropologists tell us that "primitive" peoples work on average two to four hours a day--leaving plenty of time for contemplation, worship, shooting the breeze with friends, and enjoying nature.

Even our built-in inclinations to share are undermined by a modern economy. For a Stone Ager, sharing was crucial for survival. Hunters needed each other--both to catch big game and for help during lean times. For Paleolithic hunters, a bad month at the office meant hunger or worse. There was no defrosting last season's mastodon to get through a dry spell. So they relied on a cousin, brother-in-law, or neighbor to pass on some of their bounty (and vice versa). Sharing was in everyone's best interest. Throughout the world, hunting and foraging peoples have strong sharing ethics and cultures.

In a developed economy, sharing is no longer obviously in your best interest. In fact, "shrewd" capitalists try to get the most they can for the least effort. The conditions that balanced sharing and selfishness in a Stone Age economy have been turned upside down, and as a result our selfish impulses are unchecked. Since we still have sharing instincts, however, it isn't surprising that we suffer guilt when we feel we aren't giving enough--and that studies show regular volunteering can improve physical health.

Trying to sort out where the influence of genetic programming ends and where the force of culture begins to shape our minds is a tricky business. What is clear is that the culture we've inherited is a strongly materialistic one. The American character was formed largely from the religious fervor of the first settlers, the Protestant work ethic, and the enterprising spirit of immigrants drawn to a land of opportunity. Meld those together and you get a culture infused with a success ethic. Benjamin Franklin articulated the country's credo in his popular Poor Richard's Almanack with such life-enhancing epithets as "Time is money" and "Plow deep while sluggards sleep."

In a sense, the conniving, self-promoting, and wealthy Franklin was our country's real founding father. His legacy of blending ethics, "philosophy," and wealth has been carried on by the likes of Norman Vincent Peale, Napoleon Hill, and more recently, the success motivator Tony Robbins of coal-walking fame.

The media keep the flames of the success ethic burning by doting on billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, as if their business acumen translated into life wisdom. Money does indeed talk, and the more transient, impersonal, and homogenous our society gets, the louder it speaks. While few can compete with a Gates-sized billfold, our income, possessions, and assets take on the role of SAT scores for grownups. Net worth gets intertwined with self-worth.

To disentangle the two requires a conscious effort. Given the stacking of the genetic and cultural deck, maintaining a totally serene financial life may be impossible. But taking the edge off--making peace with money so that it loses the power to control you--is within reach.

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