Happiness and the Bottom Line

In case you missed it, March 20, 2014 was International Happiness Day. Sponsored by the United Nations International, the Day of Happiness is a reminder that there are lots of good things in this world and a moment of reflection is a nice way to celebrate our gifts. Interestingly and not surprising, eighty-seven percent of people who took the online poll at www.dayofhappiness.net say that happiness trumps wealth. Is this bad news for the financial community? No it is not and here's why.

Research studies repeatedly link emotional well-being with economic productivity. In his informative book entitled "What Happy Companies Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Company for the Better," Dr. Dan Baker (with Cathy Greenberg and Collins Hemingway) extols the virtues of businesses that recognize the importance of motivating workers with carrots and not sticks. By extension, happy workers will remain employed and their incomes typically rise as they carry out their duties with a smile. This is great news for the advisers who want to help those with money to invest.

Happiness is certainly a big business. A quick search of Amazon.com for books on this topic yields nearly 40,000 results. There's even a magazine called Live Happy. One of my favorite tee shirt companies is called Life is Good. You can watch "The Economics of Happiness" documentary and follow along with a study guide.

Some people keep a gratitude journal. Setting aside a few minutes of quiet time is likewise popular. ABC reporter Dan Harris must have struck a nerve as his book about meditation is a best-seller. Click to learn more about his 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works -- A True Story.

As readers of this blog know. I am a devotee of yoga and try to take a class whenever I can. My reasons include a desire to be fit and numerous advantages of taking deep breaths and focusing on the moment. The boost to concentration levels, especially for challenging projects, is a significant plus. The medical community continues to pay attention to the benefits of mindfulness. In late 2013, Bloomberg wrote about Harvard Medical School researcher, Dr. John Denninger, and his research about yoga, brain activity and immune levels. Since six to nine out of ten visits to see a doctor are cited as stress-related, costing companies roughly $300 billion per year, his federally-funded science can be helpful indeed to both individuals and employers. See "Harvard Yoga Scientists Find Proof of Mediation Benefit" by Makiko Kitamura (Bloomberg, November 21, 2013). Also check out "Take a Deep Breath," posted on the American Institute of Stress website.

Have a good day!

Yoga Lessons For Investment Fiduciaries

I have been practicing yoga for about five years. I try to take four or five 75 minute classes each week. The combination of strength training, balance, meditation and aerobic activity is a time-effective way to exercise, strive for self-improvement and level set, especially after a busy day.

Aside from the personal benefits, I keep coming back to the invaluable lessons one can learn from yoga for an investment fiduciary. Here are a few thoughts.

Persistence matters. Even advanced practitioners recognize the need for care and diligence on a regular basis. Part-time habits seldom generate results. I was thrilled that I could finally succeed at the L-pose against the wall (pictured here, courtesy of instructor Elsie Escobar from Pittsburgh). Indeed, I was able to hold this pose twice in a row last night, after numerous attempts in the last year during yoga class. In addition, I began adding arm and leg weights when at the gym. According to "Yoga Bears: It's No Stretch to Say Traders Are Taking Deep Breaths" by Cassell Bryan-Low (Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2008), "Value the process of hard work..."

Pay attention to limits. Someone who is flexible can take a pose to a different level than someone who is stiff or has an injury. For pension fiduciaries, each plan is different for a variety of reasons. An investment that makes sense for one portfolio may be imprudent for another organization. The composition of the sponsor's talent pool, trading limits and risk tolerance are a few of the factors that could preclude certain securities, service providers and financial structures from being considered.

Focus on posture and form. Not paying attention to alignment could set someone up for an unwanted injury. Luckily, I take classes at a studio with instructors who regularly walk about the room and assist students as needed. An investment fiduciary must focus on process and take care to do sufficient homework before making important decisions such as allocating monies, selecting an asset manager and/or undertaking a liability-driven strategy.

Acknowledge the benefits of learning from others. While movements are necessarily a function of each individual's comfort level and abilities, there is a benefit from watching others strike a pose. Sometimes, an instructor will ask an individual to explain to the rest of the class how he or she has been successful in achieving a certain level of mastery and how long it took that person to realize the goal. Investment fiduciaries need to allocate sufficient time and energy for continuing education, ask questions of others who have "been there, done that" and be bold about watching what governance leaders are doing that makes them effective stewards of other people's money. The converse is to understand what ineffective fiduciaries have done and avoid their mistakes, whenever possible.

Give yourself time to think. When I first started yoga, I found it difficult to quiet my mind. I used the meditation part of class to review my "to do" list in my head. Gradually, I began to focus more on how my body felt in a pose, the sound of the music or the colors in the garden outside the studio. This "forced" effort to relax has been tremendously helpful. I feel refreshed after a class and often find myself with a renewed burst of energy by having taken a time out. For those investment fiduciaries who face continued market volatility, complex product structures and new rules and regulations, taking time to reflect on the primary objectives is a good thing. If guiding documents such as an Investment Policy Statement, Risk Management Policy Statement and/or vendor selection questionnaires by asset class are not yet in place or need revisions, concentrate on the big picture fiduciary obligations first. Getting bogged down with details and ignoring the constructs such as prudence and loyalty could pave the way for litigation, poor performance and worse.

Recognize the importance of what you are doing. While I gain personal satisfaction from the discipline and growth I have experienced as a yoga practitioner, I recognize that there are material health benefits associated with this activity. For investment stewards who get plucked from their everyday tasks and are asked to add fiduciary responsibilities to an already jam-packed day, know that your work - if done well - has a highly positive impact on countless individuals.

For those investment professionals who are interested in exploring the potential gains from practicing yoga, best of luck and "namaste."

National Nothing Day

Are you ready to celebrate National Nothing Day on January 16 of each year? Created by late newspaperman Harold Pullman Coffin, 1973 marked the debut of this unusual event. The stated goal is for Americans to relax without worrying about missing an observance or celebration of something.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is mounting evidence that relaxation and good health go hand in hand. According to the Mayo Clinic website, yoga (a type of relaxation activity) reduces stress, enhances fitness, helps with the management of chronic health problems and can keep weight gain in check. Writer Gloria Charlier cites an interview with Dr. Herbert Benson by veteran broadcaster Diane Rehm about his 2010 book entitled The Relaxation Revolution. The central premise is that a mind-body connection exists and must be nurtured. He's in good company since numerous prominent medical experts share his view. For businesses, the introduction of wellness programs can lower health care costs and encourage happier, and logically more productive, employees. Click to read "The relaxation response is healing" (Cincinnati Examiner, August 26, 2010).

If you get antsy sitting around this Sunday doing nothing, check out Meeting Wizard. A colleague tipped me off about this free site that finally (!) gets a handle on email and telephone tag when trying to set up multiple-person meetings.