From the July 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

The Pleasure Principle

Summertime, and the livin' is easy.... Or is it? Some people have a hard time making space for the people and leisure activities they love most. By contrast, others positively wallow in their passions.

At this time of year, when nature seems to encourage us to take it easy and enjoy ourselves, it may be a good idea to think about where the "pleasure principle" fits into your life. Do you embrace it? Chase it? Or try to erase it?

An awareness of the role of pleasure in life can help you and your clients align your priorities and clarify your dreams and goals. Here are some examples.

Quite a while ago, I promised my wife and kids that I'd take time off so we could go on a family vacation out West. However, my practice has just begun to pick up after a dry spell, and I'm afraid of losing this momentum if I leave now. My family is very upset with me. What should I do? You're unlikely to serve either your family or your clients well by deferring a vacation indefinitely. If you push yourself to keep working when you're truly in need of recharging, you risk burnout, which could damage client relationships and your practice more than a few weeks out of the office.

That said, you may want to put extra effort into setting the stage for your absence. For example, consider conducting review sessions with your most demanding clients to reassure them that their financial affairs will run smoothly while you're gone. Unless an assistant will be holding down the fort in your absence, you might promise to respond to any urgent e-mail or voice-mail messages during a half-hour window each weekday. You could also arrange to have your next client newsletter mailed out or posted on your Web site while you're away.

Well-earned rest and recuperation is something you deserve, not a luxury to be indulged in only after you've run out of reasons to keep your nose to the grindstone. Give yourself permission to enjoy this upcoming pleasure with your family, once you've prepared your business for it.

My husband accuses me of refusing to take time to relax and have fun. But when I do something that ought to be enjoyable, I feel guilty and keep thinking about the responsibilities I should be attending to. Why do I feel this way, and is there anything I can do about it? The cause of this sense of guilt may lie somewhere in your past. Did you have a family history of unrelenting hard work, or a parent who judged play and pleasure to be a waste of time? Were you influenced by a belief that it's necessary to suffer in order to earn a place in heaven? Were you made to feel ashamed anytime you opted for "being" instead of constantly "doing"?

Even if your adult mind no longer believes these old messages, they may continue to control your emotions. So rather than trying to change your behavior all at once, undergoing a massive guilt attack, and contracting back to your habitual patterns, you may need to stretch your capacity for rest and pleasure little by little.

Set aside some R&R time every week--perhaps an hour or two to begin with. During this time, give yourself full permission to do something you truly enjoy, with no guilty feelings allowed to intrude. Afterward, write down how you feel.

If you want to have a satisfying, intimate marriage, this process should include time spent relaxing and having fun with your husband. "Quality time" dates twice a week will help both of you store currency in your emotional bank. Gradually increase these periods of fun with your spouse, with friends, or by yourself, until you've achieved a balance between work and play that feels right for you and, ideally, for your relationship as well.

My newly-divorced client seems bent on spending her entire settlement on herself: spa vacations, cosmetic surgery, hair styling, and so on. Whenever I warn her about her shrinking assets, she says I sound just like her stingy, domineering ex-husband. How should I handle this? Kudos to you for trying to save this client's financial life! Don't be intimidated by her accusations and anger; spenders almost always have tantrums of rebellion against perceived limit-setters. To reach her, I think you're going to have to take on more of a counselor's role. (Hopefully, you're comfortable with that.)

Begin by asking about her marital history and the divorce. Who left whom? Is she feeling a lot of pain and anger directed at her ex-spouse? Her self-indulgence now may be a way of getting even with him for having controlled her spending so rigidly.

After empathizing with her feelings, point out that her new freedom can allow her to fulfill her deeper needs and longings. Assure her that you have no desire to control her or criticize her for spending money on things that make her feel good. You simply want to help her see that protecting her financial security is also a way to nurture herself. She doesn't need to give up all of her present-day pleasures, but by planning her spending more carefully, she may be able to meet her longer-range need for financial peace of mind.

If you take enough time to listen patiently to the motives behind her current spending binge, she may well be willing to limit these indulgences--without feeling judged or controlled by you--in order to make space for financial choices that will ultimately serve her better.

I have a work partner who's always leaving the office early to go sailing or biking. He has a swim and a sauna every morning at the health club, and he's just started learning to play ragtime piano. Although he seems to get as much work done as I do, I'm so envious of his ability to take time for himself that it's beginning to pollute our relationship. What should I do? I think the first step is to ask yourself what you wish you had more time for. What interests or passions would you pursue? Where would you go? Who would you spend more time with? What would you do to improve your own health?

Once you've identified these potential sources of pleasure and fulfillment, figure out how to build one or two of them into your life over the next couple of weeks. In so doing, you'll begin to enrich your life.

This process may not be easy for you. Many of us actually prefer old familiar pain to the possibility of new pleasure. Our stresses and strains are as worn and comfortable as an old shoe, whereas new pleasures threaten to sweep us away to places we've never been before.

Once you give yourself full permission to enjoy your life as much as your colleague does, your envious feelings should lessen considerably and may even vanish. If you feel resentful of him in the meantime, remind yourself that he isn't shirking work but practicing life balance, which is quite a worthy goal.

My client spends a fortune traveling around the world to scuba dive and play golf. He enjoys this immensely, but I can't get him to appreciate the wisdom of putting money aside for the future. Any ideas on how to help him see the light? Overspending for immediate gratification is a form of self-indulgence that can take the place of deeper, more nourishing forms of pleasure. Shopaholics, for example, feel good when they buy but horrible afterwards, partly because their pursuit of consumption denies them any sense of financial security or emotional stability.

So after telling your client that you admire his ability to enjoy himself, you might ask him if the way he is spending his money truly makes him feel at peace and good about himself. If not, encourage him to consider sources of pleasure that could reward him deeply without being very expensive, such as spending more time with family and friends or lending his talents to a local community organization. (For example, he might help teach swimming or scuba diving to kids at the Y.)

Share your concern that in spending so much on himself today, he may be putting tomorrow at risk. By taking steps to bring greater financial and emotional balance to his life, he will have a better chance of enjoying himself far into the future.

My husband and I disagree on how to use my recent inheritance. He's always wanted to take a train trip across Canada, but I think most of the money should go toward our retirement. I'd also like to contribute some of it to charities I've never felt financially able to support in the past. I believe our culture is much too concerned with individual pleasure. Should I insist on my own choices? You're certainly not alone in feeling that aspects of our society are too self-centered. On the other hand, many people give a great deal of time and resources to help those who are less fortunate, while still making time to enjoy life. In other words, it seems to me that both you and your husband have valid positions and needs.

Why not compromise? Allocate part of your inheritance for retirement, part for charitable giving, and the rest for the trip your spouse is hankering for. This may require "doing what doesn't come naturally" on your part. But in a life that's otherwise filled with work and responsibility, a little "selfish" (maybe we should call it "self-caring") fun may lead to more harmony within yourself as well as in your marriage.

In general, it can be a real art to find the right balance between giving and taking, work and play. Financial limitations and the demands of others often intrude, and your own internal conflicts about pleasure may complicate the picture. But if you're gentle and compassionate toward yourself and your clients, I believe you'll eventually succeed in balancing the amount of satisfaction you give to others with the amount you save and cherish for yourself.

In fact, expanding your capacity for pleasure can be seen as a worthy goal, similar to increasing your capacity for love and intimacy. The more you enjoy life, the more joy and happiness you'll be able to share with the people you love and the colleagues and clients you work with.

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