Mindfulness and Investing: Gaining Perspective in 10 Minutes a Day
About a year ago, two of Truepoint’s leaders, Michael Chasnoff and Ryan Klekar, came back from a conference, energized — excited, even. Naturally, I was curious to learn what had been so compelling. It turns out that they had heard a talk by Dan Harris, a journalist who had just written 10% Happier — a book about using meditation as a way to achieve more happiness in life.
I was intrigued, so I picked up Dan’s book and found it not only interesting, but funny. Dan’s got a great style, and the book gave me a lot to think about. The meditation practice he recommends takes just a few minutes a day. Sounds easy, right? Who can’t find a few minutes a day? So, I decided to download his app (the well-named, 10% Happier: New Meditation App for Fidgety Skeptics) and committed to daily meditation for the next three weeks.
A lot of people think meditation is a bit like the show Seinfeld — that it’s about nothing. They think the goal is to clear your mind completely, to become a void. But nobody can do that. You will have thoughts when you meditate. Instead, your goal is to be able to say, “OK, I’m having this thought, and that thought leads to another and then another. I’m having these thoughts, but now I will choose to focus on my breath.” You may refocus like that dozens — even hundreds — of times in a session. That’s not a failure; it’s the whole point!
It’s this process of refocusing — of noticing thoughts without feeling the need to act on them — that’s made the biggest difference to me. In today’s world, where there are so many distractions, so many messages blaring at us all the time, it’s helpful to be able to notice how all of that “noise” affects your brain. Mindfulness empowers me to say, “This is just a thought. I don’t have to let it control how I act. I can choose not to react, not to focus on it.”
Does your mind ever start to wander when you are waiting in a long line or stuck in traffic? You might think about all of the other tasks you need to do, or what you’re going to make for dinner, or when you’ll finally go on that vacation. In these moments, meditation and mindfulness have enabled me to return to the present — even when my mind wants to wander away.
You hear that phrase a lot these days — “Be present”— but it can be hard to know what that really means. For me, it means being focused on what’s happening in front of me right now, without piling on worries about what might come up later. That ability to focus on the here-and-now has made me more engaged and effective. It’s also ended up making whatever future event or issue I was anxious about become not so hard to deal with after all.
These feelings are actually quite similar to how we react to the market. Investing might seem like a numbers’ game, but in my experience with clients, it’s often very emotional. Whether the market is going up, like in 2017, or it’s experiencing the volatility we’ve seen this year, it’s easy to get caught up in our feelings: “Everyone else is getting rich — should I be buying more?” or “The market might keep falling. Maybe I should sell, too?” We lose sight of our investment strategy and get caught up in our worries about what others are doing and what might happen in the future.
When this happens, it’s useful to take a step back and remind yourself, “These are just thoughts. I don’t have to act on them.” That’s a big part of the “discipline” that investors are told to practice. We can’t control what the stock market does. But we can control how we react to it.
The normal human reaction is to feel like doing something, anything, gives us control. But buying or selling securities gives you no more control over the market than anyone else has. It might give you that momentary rush — “I’m doing something.” But short-term, emotional reactions do not produce long-term, sustainable investment results.
The connection between mindfulness and solid decision-making is well documented. Research shows that practicing mindfulness can decrease anxiety levels and can improve your performance under duress. This might explain why so many Wall Street traders — not exactly a “woo-woo” bunch — have started mindfulness practices, and there’s even a meditation group sponsored by the CFA Institute — an esteemed professional organization for financial analysts.
At Truepoint, we’ve also taken these lessons to heart and have created a Wellness Room in our offices — a place anyone can reserve to get a few minutes of quiet and privacy. In the rush of a busy day, I’ve found it incredibly helpful to go down to the Wellness Room, put on my headphones, and cultivate peacefulness.
Over this past year of daily meditation, I’ve learned that the mind is definitely a muscle. You can train it. This insight is what’s kept me going with meditation. The more I do it, the better I get at it, and the more helpful it is for the rest of my life. I’m still using Dan’s app because it works. It’s given me perspective — that much needed ability to take a step back and be calm in myself, rather than feeling harried and frenetic.
And though I know you can’t quantify everything, I’d say the rate of return on my investment is actually more than 10% happier.