Whomever you are, you are made up of the same types of atoms as I and every other living creature that we know about. Those same atoms that make us were brewed in the darkest, furthest reaches of the cosmos many light years away. We can both trace our origins back to single-celled organisms which emerged from the primordial ooze of Earth soup billions of years ago.
And thanks to that first lizard-looking fish thing that decided it would rather live on land than in the water, I am certain there is common ground between us and a shared experience to be found. And if you are anything like me, you can’t help but scratch that selfish little itch called “more”.
More money. More things. More status. A bigger house. A faster car. A better job to get more money to pay for more things to get more status.
That’s where our attention can drift if we don’t watch it closely.
My argument today is that, especially for people in the west, most suffering isn’t physical. It’s in the mind. Therefore, the mind is just as worthwhile a place to invest your time as your finances. Because the quality of your mind can heavily influence the amount in your bank account, both figuratively and literally. (I am well aware that there are some very real, very painful physical experiences some people are going through, and I address that more below, but the scope of this article is mainly psychological).
Where It All Began
The fact that you are reading this is in thanks to an incomprehensibly lucky series of events. That we are both alive at this very moment and able to communicate across copper wires is remarkable. The hundred thousand human generations that came before us might not even recognize us, and yet, we share DNA with them. (We also share 50% of our DNA with bananas, and I doubt a banana would recognize us either).
But they did fight for their lives against brutal odds, outlasting the harshest winters, the hottest deserts, and the most ferocious bacterium to extend their lineage and make us as Homo sapiens possible. They learned to make tools, trade those tools, and build better tools. They harnessed the power of language, wild animals, and Mother Nature to bring us into the modern age. That alone deserves a lot of credit.
Number of humans who have ever lived
The age of the Earth in years
Average years of a human life
Compared to early hominids, our life was pretty good even a few thousand years ago. By no means was it perfect, but it was getting better all the time. Even then, our great great grandparents kept inventing and life keeps getting better. From the first city that allowed the exchange of goods and ideas, to the agricultural improvements needed to feed the growing human race and finally to the breakthroughs in networks and energy which allow our phones and computers to be conduits to read these words no matter if we sit blocks away or thousands of miles apart.
Okay, so what?
Even with all of this as the improbable foundation for our existence, we are still left with a lot of questions and a lot less answers. Why are we here? Why do we care so much about money and status? Where do we fit into our tribes? Who else is even in our tribe? How does a community of neighbors compare to a community on Facebook? Why would anyone ever go to a high school reunion?
These are some questions we are all asking ourselves and trying to answer through contemplation, action, and failure. We read books. We listen to podcasts. We go to therapists. All of this in an attempt to find the answers to these big “why” questions. Maybe even asking “why” in the face of all this is ridiculous. The world is inherently chaotic and random. Should we just bend whichever way the wind is blowing? Of course not. But we also shouldn’t binge watch episodes of The Office for the 20th time just because it’s raining out. And yet, sometimes I just can’t help myself.
Now the Sappy Stuff
There’s no clear answer to these questions, but there are some guiding principles. I know what has worked well for me in the past. And it’s not making money for the sake of money. So far it’s been honesty, connections, growth, gratitude, and curiosity as the true keys to my fulfillment.
Contentment is more attainable from moment to moment than trying to manage continuous bursts of happiness or pleasure bought with dollars or status. And mindfulness is a path to contentment. A nonjudgmental and open approach to thoughts and sensations allows our attention to move toward a healthy and productive place more consistently. Less thinking about “stuff” and more thinking about the values and purpose behind that stuff.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Being mindful of these things physiologically improves the quality of your mind, and therefore your life, your relationships, and your satisfaction with it all. Consciousness is the area of awareness within which all experience occurs, and the experiences themselves are the contents. Accessing consciousness and its contents can be done by anyone. However, our minds are terrible at being able to do this naturally. Which is why I recommend meditation practice. Waking Up and Headspace are two great apps to help get you started. Sam Harris says it best in his book, Waking Up:
“Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are aspects of your life that seem in need of improvement—when your goals are unrealized, or you are struggling to find a career, or you have relationships that need repairing. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life—you won’t enjoy any of it.”-Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
A basic misunderstanding built into the mind is that you have to defer happiness until you have more money, more fame, or more sexual partners. This makes some sense from an evolutionary perspective, but it’s not a recipe for being content in life. And once you believe that to be true, enough is never enough.
Thoughts and urges simply aren’t facts and aren’t reliable guides on your journey. And the benefits of learning how to be content in the present moment are context neutral. Both a billionaire and a homeless person can benefit in the same way. It’s truly an even playing field. In fact, some argue that learning to use your mind to improve your situation in this way is actually even more useful for someone that doesn’t have a very high quality of life due to the leverage they can employ with mindfulness against their very real problems.
Yes, money’s great, but knowing why you want it is even better:
How Values-Based Spending Can Make You Rich
Why focusing on your values is a good place to start your path to financial independence. (8 min read)
I know being more mindful and your personal finances don’t appear connected, but they really are. Embracing this mindset can help you separate wants from needs more consistently so that it requires less willpower to decide against superfluous purchases. It’s important to note that without lots of practice doing this, it’s hard to tell if you are accepting unpleasantness as a coping mechanism while secretly hoping your financial situation or relationships change. That’s not the aim.
However, recognizing that your circumstances are interesting and good enough as they already are is completely compatible with wanting to achieve self-actualization. A happy by-product of that might be that your bank account grows, but even then you are in a position to actually capitalize on that dollar’s value and spend it more wisely. You already know you’ll enjoy the view at the top of the mountain, so try to enjoy the view on your way up too.
You are already, literally, the universe experiencing itself. How is your next purchase going to improve that?
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