Attitude and Money Management

The old joke goes that if you don't think money can buy happiness, then you just don't know where to shop (rim shot). But social scientists who study this stuff tell us that is not really true.

The old joke goes that if you don't think money can buy happiness, then you just don't know where to shop (rim shot). But social scientists who study this stuff tell us that is not really true. Your level of happiness through life, it turns out, doesn't really depend upon how much money you have — provided you have some life-sustaining minimum. Your attitude is determined by other factors.

When people who come into a windfall, like a lottery win or an inheritance, are followed, their initial elation fades. At six months, whatever their new economic status, they revert to being just about the same measurable level of happy that they were before they received their bolus of money.

Most folks who choose medicine as a career implicitly understand that acquiring money is a means to an end, not the most important one. Don't get me wrong, all of us enjoy what having more money can enable you to do and have. But we have all seen how people, docs and civilians alike, can be subverted by circumstance to just chase bigger numbers, sometimes in lieu of more difficult and valuable achievements.

Even when the Great Debt Recession was at its most hazardous, a philosophical attitude about our finances was a key to getting through the downturn. The most practical thought was, “I will do what I can, I will do what I have to and I will try to be as smart about it as the situation allows.”

As I wrote recently, sometimes the smartest thing to do when at an important juncture is just do nothing. In this instance, it was better to “look before you leap” than follow the advice that “he who hesitates is lost.” Drama can be such an expensive luxury, so a useful approach was to grouse some, get some knowledgeable advice/reassurance, and stay focused on what else is important in our lives. And let the economic cycle play out.

It helps that as time goes by, perspective for these unexpected Black Swans may come by accumulating some hard-won financial experience and knowledge. It also helps that when your debt declines, your sense of security grows. Younger docs may have to take some of this philosophic approach on faith for now, because I remember a time when I would have thought while reading this: “This guy is nuts! I have bills to pay!”

There are many paths to finding emotional comfort with money — some harder, some easier, some learned, some given. But there are many things in life that are interesting, important and fulfilling to function as life's “coin of the realm,” as well as, well, coin of the realm. Your practice, your patients, your family, your other interests — you know what I mean.

In the meantime, for the financial side to develop, save your money, get the best advice possible and keep reading PMD. If there is one thing that I have learned, it is that no matter what path you take through life, attitude is everything and in everything, including your finances.

Oh, and it turns out that you really can buy happiness that lasts … if you give more away. But that's another study and another story for another day. What's your story?