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What Most People Don't Understand About Work and Happiness

Why is the difference in people's happiness massive when they make $80,000 instead of $50,000, but negligible when they make $200,000 instead of $100,000? Why are some of the unhappiest people in our society the children of enormously wealthy parents?
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In About Schmidt, the 2002 Oscar-nominated movie about a newly retired Omaha insurance salesman, we see a different side of Jack Nicholson: gnarled, understated, scruffy, almost unbearably sad.

(We see all sides of Jack's co-star Kathy Bates, too, totally naked in a hot tub, but that's a different sort of column.)

Jack, Hollywood's all-time master of the human condition, shows us a poignant but less romantic side of early retirement. He isn't free, or invigorated with a new spirit of adventure, or even remotely happy.

He's the polar opposite (down to Omaha's crappy weather) of the guy in the classically cheesy London Life Freedom 55 ad from the early '90s, jogging down a beautiful beach, living his dreams free from the burden of work.

London Life Guy followed a path my industry has been selling for decades: build up the bank balance, ditch the rat race as quickly as possible, and eternal happiness will follow.

It's a lie: an entertaining and enduring lie, but a lie nonetheless.

It's based on an old social model, a relic from the Industrial Revolution, where factory workers hated workdays jammed with assembly-line widget-making so much that only an absence of that work could bring them happiness.

Many affluent people's financial plans are still based around retiring as early as they can. Like Jack's Warren Schmidt, they sacrifice experiences -- true happiness -- through their 30s, 40s and 50s so they can build up assets and trade them for peace and work-free bliss in their advanced years. It all amounts to a massive bet, a life-defining wager that you'll be healthy enough to enjoy that money. It makes as much sense as those who completely ignore the future and save little or nothing.

That kind of planning is disconnected from a couple of realities: the reality of work, and the reality of happiness.

In fact, more than ever it's work itself, that when in balance with other parts of our life, brings us a part of the happiness equation, at least the sorts of work in which we find purpose, meaning, camaraderie, collaboration, relationships.

In my shop, a senior leader came to me with plans to retire early. He wanted to travel with his wife throughout the U.S. in a motorhome. Drive to Graceland, see a PGA tournament, experience the national parks. But I know this man and his wife. I know they still crave the connection they have with co-workers and clients. They have many years of supreme value left to give.

I said to him: why don't you take a sabbatical? Three months, six months, whatever. Lease that motorhome, experience everything, and reflect on what's next. If you're refreshed and energized, come back to us. The door is open.

He's eager now to return to work; he actually misses his colleagues and challenges. He's obviously more a fan of another Jack hit, The Bucket List. But instead of shoehorning everything in at the end of his life in a mad panic, as Jack and Morgan Freeman did, he's ticking off the list throughout his life.

We advise our employees, and our clients, to build plans around happiness, not just the numbers of zeros in a portfolio.

The rules have changed. Technology, advances in health care, demography: they all add up to more of us living longer and having opportunities to live our best life in all our decades. We don't have to save it all up for a decade we may never get.

So we counsel people to forget the Freedom 55 ad, seductive as it is, and strive for a balanced life that factors in career and experiences AND investing.

If happiness and balance means making smaller contributions to the alphabet soup of RRSPs and TFSAs and LIRAs in exchange for an experience -- travel, family time, a charitable act -- we endorse it. We'll eagerly work that decision through. Somewhere between having no work at 55 or not planning or saving at all for the future lies a sweet spot where you're balancing both.

Perhaps that means my firm will see fractionally less assets under management from some clients in the short term. But, long-term, we think it'll mean happier clients who'll stay with us longer.

I know some people will wonder where a CEO in a serious, button-down industry like wealth management gets off talking about happiness. You wouldn't take men's grooming advice from the craggy and unshaven Warren Schmidt; why would you listen to my advice about a fuller and fulfilling life?

The fact is: happiness is fundamental to our clients. They need wealth-management advice -- greater returns, more money -- but what they really WANT is not just more zeros on their statement but to live the life they want to live. To coin a phrase, they want someone who can help them convert wealth into units of happiness.

We think we can be a different kind of wealth-management company if we pay just as much attention to that as we do to generating returns.

Why is the difference in people's happiness massive when they make $80,000 instead of $50,000, but negligible when they make $200,000 instead of $100,000?

Why are some of the unhappiest people in our society the children of enormously wealthy parents?

We can answer those questions, and we believe helping people understand those answers will make our investors the happiest people in the world. If we do that, we can offer Canadians a more powerful kind of freedom.


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