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Re-Calibrating the Lens Through Which We View Success

article-graphic By Dan Martin

December 21, 2016

Articles & White Papers | Approaching Retirement, Talking About Finances, Investing, Younger Investors, Budgeting & Saving

Before you made it to this article (welcome, and thank you, by the way), you may have sifted through a stack (or the digital version of a stack) of other educational content on finance and investing. I've found that these articles exist on a spectrum. On one end, you might have a white paper on Variable Distribution MLP risk and rate of return, which might include topics, language and analysis that are completely unintelligible to all but the most accomplished financial analysts. On the other, you might see an article or video with the title "5 Easy Steps to DIY Investing Success," which, spoiler alert, might turn out to be a bit of an oversimplification.

As our writers put together content for Jackson's Center for Financial Insight, we are constantly in search of the middle of the spectrum; content that is prescriptive and offers substance, but that is also consumable and engaging (something we hope people want to read). With this spectrum in mind, I began thinking about what success means in the investing world. Success in one instance might be the dollars and cents needed to reach a specific, calculated goal, while on the other side of the coin, might be the dream of retiring to a private island and whiling away the "Golden Years" on a pristine white sand beach.

"Success in one instance might be the dollars
and cents needed to reach a specific, calculated goal,
while on the other side of the coin, might be the dream of
retiring to a private island and whiling away the "Golden
Years" on a pristine white sand beach."

Yet, success, whether in investing or in life, is entirely a matter of personal environment, mindset and perspective. The question then becomes, "How do we step outside of the common definitions of 'investing success' outlined above, and create our own version?"

To help answer this question, we can learn valuable lessons from Shawn Achor, a happiness researcher (I love that title), author and speaker, and a tireless advocate for positive psychology. I'm basing the following tips on, you guessed it, Shawn's TED Talk, "The Happy Secret to Better Work," which is on TED's list of the 20 most popular talks of all time. I realize I've been on a TED Talk rampage recently, but they are always interesting, and more often than not, they provide us with important lessons that transcend our specific job or function.

Pursuing the "Happiness Advantage"

Happiness is an ethereal, often ambiguous and subjective concept and, as such, it tends to get downplayed or pushed to the side when the conversation turns to more tangible topics, like revenue, sales and, historically, investing. In a way, this makes sense. The very definition of happiness differs wildly from individual to individual, making the measurement of how important happiness actually is to "success" in the way we normally define it enormously difficult.

As a result, we (human beings) have decided that, instead of making happiness a part of the recipe for success on the front end, being successful will bring us to happiness. In his talk, Shawn explains the phenomenon as follows:

"Every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades, you got into a good school and after you get into a better one, you got a good job, now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we're going to change it. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. We've pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society. And that's because we think we have to be successful, then we'll be happier."1


Shawn believes that nothing could be further from the truth. And yet, when you look at the vast number of competitive environments (i.e., academics, sports, work, etc.) we are exposed to as we grow up, every single institution is designed in that way. Work harder, longer, faster than everyone else, because when you succeed, it will bring you happiness. But what if our brains are actually designed to work in the opposite way? Shawn's research is centered on answering this question, and his findings are groundbreaking:

"If you can raise somebody's level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, we've found that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You're 37 percent better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed."1


article-graphic So why isn't everybody already doing this? I think the answer is two-fold. First, manufacturing positivity is not easy, and requires far more maintenance and creativity than pushing people to "work hard" (which is pretty cut and dried). Second, I think many of us have the tendency to view things like positivity and success as opposite ends of a spectrum. You can either have one or the other. This is especially true for those who have already been "successful" in some way; if the routine that brought you "success" is the age-old model of working an 80-hour-week and lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps, it's difficult to step outside of that definition and embrace change.

"I think many of us have the tendency to view
things like positivity and success as opposite ends of
a spectrum. You can either have one or the other."

To help those who may fall into the latter category, it's important to note that the "Success = Happiness" view is not necessarily wrong. Shawn's research is simply telling us that there might be a better way, and that happiness does not have to be a casualty of success. The theory reminds me of the great revelation in the movie Monsters, Inc. that laughter is actually a more powerful fuel than fear. For a time, screams worked to fuel the city, and the monsters went about their business because they didn't know any other way of doing things. In discovering the power of laughter, however, they unearthed the key to being both successful and happy.


Sure, it's a cartoon movie, but it makes a powerful point, and one that Shawn stresses in his talk: "If we change our formula for happiness and success, we can change the way that we can then affect reality."1

Reversing the Formula: Becoming a More Positive Investor/Saver in the Present

So how does all of this apply to saving and investing? While there are myriad applications of Shawn's theories to financial management and behavior, the following three resonate most with me:

  1. The Importance of "Why" Reminders
    One of my favorite messages in the talk centers on how we can actually train our brains for positivity, and the examples Shawn uses are beautifully simple:

    "Journaling about one positive experience you've had over the past 24 hours allows your brain to relive it. Exercise teaches your brain that your behavior matters...And finally, random acts of kindness are conscious acts of kindness. We get people, when they open up their inbox, to write one positive email praising or thanking somebody in their support network."1

    Couldn't we then use these types of reminders to help shape and adjust our perception of what we're really doing when we save or invest our money? In other words, perhaps we can move beyond the dollars and cents we are saving, or the amount our invested money grows or declines from year to year, and focus on why we're putting money away for the future. As we have all learned through experience, when training our brain to do something against its will, repetition is critical.

    "Perhaps we can move beyond the dollars and
    cents we are saving, or the amount our invested money
    grows or declines from year to year, and focus on
    why we're putting money away for the future."

    Now, motivation and habit formation work differently for everyone, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but we can all commit to thinking about our "why" for saving and investing in the present. We are all taught that investing and saving will bear fruit over time, but it's difficult for our brains to think that far forward; we are wired for more immediate gratification.

    I love Shawn's concept of sending one positive email every day, and it's something we can try for investing. Every day, or every week, write down one reason why you're putting money away for the future, or better yet, create an email account to house these reasons, and send your reason to that address. I think you'll find that the reason will reflect something you're passionate about, something you're grateful for or something that, while it may only exist as a dream in the future, makes you happy in the present. We all experience the very same feeling when we purchase a lottery ticket; it's not really about winning, it's about thinking of what we'll do with what we win.


    Even after a few months, you will have compiled so many wonderful reasons to save and invest that, every time you go into that email account to take a look at your work, it will be difficult to keep a smile from your face.
  2. Your Plan is the Most Important, Because It's Yours
    One of the most acute issues investors and savers face, regardless of demographic or economic situation, is the human penchant to relentlessly compare ourselves with others (I've written a bit about this phenomenon here). Tired clichés and platitudes aside, it's just tremendously difficult to focus solely on your own story. Beyond plowing through all of the complex literature available on behavioral psychology, perhaps the power of reminder is a place to start here as well.

    In his talk, Shawn reveals that, while many of us assume that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels, the reality is actually quite the opposite. In fact, even if we know everything about a person's external world, we can only predict 10 percent of their long-term happiness; 90 percent of our happiness is determined by how our brains perceive the external world.1


    These statistics are pretty amazing, because they mean that happiness is actually within our control. The next time you review your financial plan, then, commit to looking at your strategy with a hefty dose of optimism. Sure, financial planning inherently includes quite a bit of uncertainty, which stresses us out. I'm not saying that we need to suspend reality (finances are still a serious, tangible business), but to be more productive with the emotions we know we are apt to feel.

    As Shawn urges, try treating stress as a challenge, not a threat.1 You have to believe you can reach your goals (or you would not have set them in the first place); every bump in the road, then, is just another step in a journey you know you can complete. Finally, research has shown that your social support system can be an important predictor of both happiness and success.1 Simply remembering that you don't have to go it alone, and taking advantage of the network that's there to help you doesn't require advanced investing knowledge, just taking the initiative.

    "You have to believe you can reach your goals
    (or you would not have set them in the first place);
    every bump in the road, then, is just another step
    in a journey you know you can complete."

  3. Learning Can Make Us Happy, and Happiness Can Help Us Learn
    A final useful tie-in to saving and investing in Shawn's research is its potential impact on financial education and empowerment. Just as Shawn believes happiness can actually (scientifically) drive success, he also believes it can help us learn: "...Dopamine, which floods into your system when you're positive, has two functions. Not only does it make you happier, it turns on all of the learning centers in your brain allowing you to adapt to the world in a different way."1

    Here, he hits on one of the oft-overlooked barriers to building financial education and knowledge. When investors seek out financial education, it's often as a result of a life transition, some of which are completely unexpected. As such, we are not approaching financial education with any form of positivity; in fact, we are likely exhibiting stress and fear.

    "When investors seek out financial education,
    it's often as a result of a life transition, some
    of which are completely unexpected."

    If we could only approach financial education as a form of financial empowerment, and with an understanding that we are building knowledge for positive reasons, I think we would see a large uptick in the number of investors who chose to take advantage of the tools already available. Perhaps one of the answers lies in creating the financial education programs we offer as an industry accessible and interesting to those investors who are not currently undergoing a transformative transition. I don't profess to have a solution, but at the very least, the research is thought-provoking.

To me, that's really the crux of the vital importance of Shawn's message. What we are talking about is not one solution to one problem, but an entirely different way of thinking.

Happiness and success are two things that every human being fundamentally wants (and, some would make the case, needs). Yet, if we put them in the wrong order, we could end up losing both. It doesn't matter if we're talking about success at our jobs, in our relationships or in the context our financial planning strategy – the message is clear, and possibly even life-changing. Focusing on happiness first, ethereal though it may seem, can actually drive "success," however we choose to define it:

"And by doing these activities and by training your brain just like we train our bodies, what we've found is we can reverse the formula for happiness and success, and in doing so, not only create ripples of positivity, but a real revolution."1

1Achor, S. (February 2012). The Happy Secret to Better Work. TED. Retrieved from

Dan Martin
Dan Martin
Director of Marketing for the Financial Planning Association.

Dan Martin is Director of Marketing for the Financial Planning Association® (FPA®), the principal professional organization for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER (CFP®) professionals, educators, financial services providers and students who seek advancement in a growing, dynamic profession. Previously, he served as Director of Digital Communications & Strategy for Jackson. Dan is an award-winning author with a diverse financial services industry background in marketing and communications. He earned a journalism degree from the University of Denver and his MBA in marketing from the Daniels College of Business. He can be reached via Twitter at @DanW_Martin.

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