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Try Changing Your Reference Point

we tend to feel unhappy when we don't experience financial gratitude
❝The lucky never realize they are lucky until it's too late...People are never happy with what they have. They always want what they had, or what someone else has.❞ -"The Rabbi" in Lucky Number Slevin

I'm on my couch watching a movie that would become one of my favorite movies of all time, Lucky Number Slevin. If you're not familiar, this is a dark comedy/thriller about a case of mistaken identity.

One particular scene sticks out. The main character is brought to a mob boss who goes by The Rabbi (played by Ben Kinsley). The main character tries to explain to The Rabbi that he's unlucky because they've got the wrong guy. The Rabbi responds by telling him that he was better off yesterday, but it took today for him to realize it. The Rabbi's speech is a profound look into happiness and gratitude. We can manipulate our viewpoint by shifting where we focus. We can change our reference points.


Happiness is a hard word to define. Many people equate happiness with smiling and giggling. People can laugh and smile and not be satisfied with their lives, though. Another way to view happiness is to consider your life satisfaction. Viewed in this way, it's entirely possible to be happy without giggling and laughing.

As hard as happiness is to define, for our purposes here, I'm defining happiness as the difference between what we have and what we want. People who are never satisfied with what they have are always reaching for more. People who are always reaching for more tend to not be happy with what they have. What they have will never be enough.

Alternatively, there are happy people out there who have far less than what you have. In other words, some people are happy with what they already have.

The difference between these two opposing types of people is what they choose to focus on. They have different reference points. Are you happy today? You can't really answer that question without specifying what you're comparing today to. Are you happy today compared to how you were yesterday? Are you happy today compared to how you were five years ago? Are you happy today compared to how you think your life ought to be today?

Our choice of reference points matters for our happiness.

financial gratitude leads to happiness


It's easy to complain about everything that's wrong with our lives. This is, in fact, how we are wired. Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. That means that we have a mix of both positive and negative experiences that happened to us, but we will notice and remember the negative experiences more. Author Rick Hanson says that our minds are like velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.

It makes sense why this would be the case. Back in tribal days, people who were experiencing gratitude and happiness in the moment were unaware of the dangers that were around them. In other words, those people who focused on the good experiences didn't survive to become our ancestors. You can think about it this way, we can't be right all the time, so when we're wrong, we want to err on the side of caution. So if we see a snake and we think it's a snake, we're right, and we can take appropriate action. If we see a stick and we think it's a stick, we're right, and we don't have to do anything. But, if we see a stick but think it's a snake, we run away and the worst that happens to us is we get a little bit embarrassed. But we survive to be embarrassed again tomorrow. However, if we see a snake but think it's a stick, it's no guarantee that we'll be around tomorrow. We had to place more emphasis on the risks.

We no longer live in tribes, however. A lot of good happens to us. We just may not notice it. Gratitude is the practice of paying attention to all the good things that happened to us. In the United States, we do this once a year on Thanksgiving. We give thanks for everything that we're thankful for. I propose that we do this every day of the year.

Consider this, on your worst day, there are at least a billion people who would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with you in your worst moment.

Things are almost always better than you think they are. There's a lot of good around you; you just need to notice it.

financial gratitude is the focus on what we already have


Mindfulness is essentially the practice of paying close attention to the present moment without judgment. That's it. Paying attention is all mindfulness is. The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness and is our default state. We spend a considerable amount of time lost in thought, talking to ourselves. That's not the issue in and of itself, but thinking without knowing were thinking, identifying with our negative thoughts, limits our happiness.

Slowing down and attending to the present moment helps us be more aware of the positive aspects of our lives. Similarly, paying close attention to the contents of negative feelings and emotions - without judging them or identifying with them - reduces the length of time we are stuck in these negative mental states.

You don't have to meditate to be more mindful, although mindfulness meditation is great practice for living a mindful life. All you have to do is slow down and be aware of your experience.

financial mindfulness is about increasing your awareness of your finances and your body

Reference Points

Within your awareness, you get to choose where to shine your light of attention. The reference points you choose to compare your current situation to will make all the difference in the world to your state of mind and your happiness. Focusing on what you don't have will keep you feeling deprived. Focusing on what other people have will keep you feeling envious. Focusing on what you used to have will keep you feeling sad. Shining your light of attention on what you have and feeling grateful for it will help you live a more happy life.

There are two things I want to bring up concerning your reference point choices. Some people believe that focusing on what we have instead of what we don't have will lead to laziness or cause us to lose our drive. This need not be the case. You can still have ambitions and aspirations in life and work towards them. But while doing that, you can feel grateful for how far you've already come. You can still keep climbing a mountain while feeling satisfied that you've already climbed up most of it.

Others feel guilty for taking pride in what they have when others don't have as much through no fault of their own. Again, this need not be the case. You can and should work towards making the world a better place, whatever that means to you. But you don't have to feel bad while doing it. Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, and using those strengths to make the world a better place is one of the best things you can do. Feeling bad that you have those strengths doesn't help anyone.

with financial mindfulness we get to choose what we focus on

Ideas to Change Your Reference Point

There are great ways to change your reference point and take on a gratitude attitude. These are negative visualization, the last time meditation, and doing the math.

In the movie Lucky Number Slevin, The Rabbi says that the lucky don't realize they're lucky until it's too late. That's because they haven't appreciated what they have. In other words, they are taking their life for granted, and it's only after some good aspect of your life goes away that they realize how lucky they were. Negative visualization is the antidote to this. With negative visualization, you think about some area of your life and imagine what your life would be like without it. What would life look like if the company you work for was bought and you suddenly lost your job? What would life be like if you lost your relationship with your partner or spouse? Imagine life if you suddenly lost your house or apartment to a fire. Don't dwell on these things; just simply think about them for a brief moment. Then when you snap back to reality, you can feel grateful that you haven't lost those things.

Everything you do will be done for the last time. Indeed, you've already done some things for the last time, and you probably didn't know it was going to be the last time when you did it. With this in mind, the last time meditation is when you think about your experience through the lens that this might actually be the last time you do it. This helps you appreciate your experiences more. This is true even if things you don't like doing. There will be, or was, the last time that you got up in the middle of the night with your infant (if you are a parent). Think about that the next time you have to get up to feed your baby. The slight reframe changes everything. Our dog, Bingo, won't be around forever. Knowing that, it's easier for me to take her on a walk when it's -20 degrees outside; I appreciate watching her wag her tail running through the snow, and doing snow angels because I know there's going to be a time when I wish I could be back into this situation.

A spin-off of the last time meditation is doing the math. We know that our experiences are going to be finite. Doing the math is simply calculating how many times we have left of a particular experience. To be sure, there are some estimates that go into this, but this too helps us appreciate our experiences more. Using Bingo as an example again, I know that we go on about 10 long hikes each year with her. I also know she's seven years old with a life expectancy of about 12. Doing the math, I multiply 10 hikes per year by the five years she has left, and I realize we get to go on 50 more hikes with Bingo. I might even drop this to 40, take into account that she won't be able to do it as much when she's older. Putting a number on this makes it crystal clear that I need to savor these moments. How many more holidays will you have with your parents? How many more vacations will you go on while your children are young? How many more soccer games do you get to bring your kids to? How many more concerts do you have left?

focusing on what you already have gives you financial gratitude

Don't let your automatic negative thoughts ruin your day, or worse, your week or your month. Slow down and recognize that it's not as bad as you think. Sometimes bad things happen, but you don't have to be in a state of negative emotion while solving those problems. Focus on what you have and be grateful for all the good that you have in your life.

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness

Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness

Hanson, Rick, and Richard Mendius: Buddha's Brain

Harris, Sam: Waking Up

Irvine, William: A Guide to the Good Life

Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face

Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge

Millburn, Joshua Fields, and Ryan Nicodemus: Essential

Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness

Seligman, Martin: Flourish

Scott, S.J., and Barrie Davenport: 10-Minute Mindfulness

Scott, S.J., and Barrie Davenport: Declutter Your Mind

Wallace, David Foster: This is Water

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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