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Life's a Struggle

problems are guaranteed
❝Life is a never-ending stream of problems that must be confronted, surmounted, or solved ... Problems are what keep us occupied and give our lives meaning.❞ -Mark Manson

I'm in the middle of a meditation training session when the topic of problems and setbacks comes up. In meditation, especially in the beginning, we are taught to focus our attention on the breath. It can be frustrating for beginning meditators because it's hard to take more than a couple of breaths without becoming lost in thought. This is even worse when the meditator is experiencing a problem in his or her life while trying to meditate.

The teacher reassures us that it's okay to have problems. Instead of being mindful of our breath, he instructs us to simply be mindful of our problem. Pay attention to the thoughts themselves. Pay attention to any emotions we feel because of these problems. Pay attention to the raw sensations in our bodies that result from these problems.

We learn that when we pay close attention to everything we experience, negative rumination tends to go away. It helps break the automatic negative thought that we have that it's unfair that this problem is happening to us. It breaks the catastrophic thinking that comes along with the feeling that we didn't get our way.

I'm reminded of my teenage years when I was horribly rebellious. I was always getting in trouble in general, but specifically, I would get in trouble with my mother...a lot. More than several times, I would complain about how it was unfair that something was happening to me. Her response, quite consistently, was that I should get used to it because life's a struggle (except she didn't say struggle).

As I'm learning about paying attention to problems while meditating, I'm struck by how I've never learned the profound nature of her statement before. "Life's a struggle" does not mean the world is out to get me, and then I am some kind of victim. "Life is a struggle" means it's a struggle for everyone. It's part of the human condition.

This realization changed how I think about life in general, but especially the role money plays in our lives.


There's an old saying that the only things for sure in life are death and taxes. Yet we can add one more with confidence; problems or setbacks. You know there will be problems for you to solve, and yet much of all of our suffering is due to our desire to have a life that is free from problems.

Imagine a book or movie where everybody was happy all the time, and nobody had any problems to solve. You would not be interested in that story. Likewise, imagine a video game where there are no obstacles. You simply run your character from one side of the world to the other. You wouldn't play that video game. Without problems and challenges, life would be boring. Some go so far as to say that we would invent problems to solve in a world without problems.

A strange thing happens when you shift your mindset away from hoping there will be no problems to expecting problems. For example, you have probably experienced frustration and anger while driving. Perhaps you got cut off by somebody who clearly was trying to take advantage of you. Our natural instinct is to become upset because some part of us was hoping for a perfect commute. If instead, we set out on our journey expecting somebody to cut us off, then we can calmly say to ourselves, "There he is."

Shifting our mindset helps us remain calm.

Expecting problems takes out the sting when they happen


With this new mindset of accepting problems, you now get to view your life as presenting you with interesting and fun puzzles to solve. You can even think of it as a game if that's helpful. Some like to imagine a higher power testing them. This higher power knows that you can succeed in this challenge. The simple reframe changes your mindset and helps you with the realization that whether you complain about it or not, at that moment, you have something that needs your attention. It turns it into a forward-looking situation.

setbacks and problems are what make life worth living

A grateful person exhibits certain trails. Rather than feeling deprived in life, a grateful person experiences a sense of abundance. A grateful person acknowledges the contributions of others to his/her success and well-being, appreciates life's simple pleasures, and acknowledges the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude.


Psychologists talk about hedonic adaptation. This is effectively the idea that humans are very good at getting used to their surroundings. In other words, once we achieve a goal that we set out to accomplish, we very quickly get used to this. Any happiness that we gain is fleeting. Then we have to set a new goal and set out to accomplish it so that we can get another shot of fleeting happiness at some point in the future. This never-ending stream of goals that we hope will give us happiness is sometimes called a hedonic treadmill.

It stands to reason, then, that the endless pursuit of goals is not the ticket to happiness. Not only does getting to your destination (achieving a goal) only provide you a short fleeting amount of happiness, but it's easy to view the journey on the way as something that's in your way. It's easy to get upset at all of the setbacks we have to address on the journey.

Achieving goals is worthless if you don't like this system. The flip side is that if you enjoy the system, the goals will take care of themselves. If you understand that the system will already have challenges and problems baked in, then you'll be happy with whatever the outcome is.

choose systems over goals - the journey is more important than the destination


Think about your proudest story. I'm talking about that story you tell when you meet somebody new that you want to impress. The story usually involves overcoming some hurdle that you didn't think you could overcome at the time. What did you overcome, and what happened as a result?

Similarly, you can think about your best day at work. What happened on your best day of work? I bet the answer is not that day you went to work, got your entire to-do list completed, everything came in on time and under budget, and you were happy all day long. It's more likely that your best day at work came when there were a thousand fires to put out, and your team had to come together to solve what seemed to be, at the time, impossible problems.

Think about that. At the time of your proudest story or your best day at work, you were in the midst of solving very stressful problems or overcoming challenging hurdles. Yet, with hindsight, you get to look back and talk about those moments as some of the best moments of your life.

This helps you see the link between satisfaction and struggle. Once you have linked satisfaction and struggle in the past, you can now apply this going forward. You can ask yourself what you were willing to put up with in the future. It helps you take more risks because you understand that not only are problems guaranteed, but overcoming those problems is a source of happiness.

what problems are you willing to put up with


We know that money is stressful. We also know that struggling to solve problems is stressful. But what happens when you have to struggle to solve a financial problem?

Everyone is a little weird when it comes to money. Money is a top source of stress for people and a top cause of conflict in relationships. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is our expectations. When we expect a world without financial problems, of course we are going to be upset when a financial problem presents itself. Expecting financial problems lessens the sting. Expecting financial problems allows you to think about what needs to happen at the moment.

What will you do when an unexpected expense pops up? What will happen when you don't get enough hours at work? How will you react when you find out that you missed a payment on your loan? What happens when the software you use to track your finances has a glitch?

You can think of many other issues that may come up. You may lose your job, someone else might get a promotion over you, you might get a new boss, you may spend more than you should have. The specific nature of the problem can't be known, but the fact that there will be problems is guaranteed.

money problems can be worse than non-money problems - but you still have to prepare for them.

Life is a struggle. That is guaranteed. What problems and struggles happen to us and when they happen to us are outside our control. What is in our control is our ability to respond rather than react to them. We can expect setbacks and troubles to happen, thus lessening the blow and the sting when they do. Suffering through problems allows you the opportunity to solve interesting problems. Ironically, dealing with setbacks can give your life meaning. Accepting this fact and the related setbacks has the potential to take away much of the pain associated with such problems.

How will you act in the face of your next problem?

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Clear, James: Atomic Habits

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Harris, Sam: Waking Up

Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life

Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face

Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge

Ivtzan, I., T. Lomas, K. Hefferon & P. Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology

Manson, Mark: Everything is F*cked

Sinek, Simon: Leaders Eat Last

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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