The Gray Divorce Podcast: Episode 25 How to Shape a Life of Money and Meaning with Brian Portnoy

Andrew Hatherley |

Announcement: Welcome to the Gray Divorce Podcast hosted by divorce financial analyst and retirement planning counselor, Andrew Hatherley. Join Andrew and guest experts as they help late life divorcees build the financial and mental foundation for a meaningful future. There is life after divorce. Now onto the show.

Andrew Hatherley: Hello everyone. Welcome to episode 25 of the Gray Divorce Podcast. Our guest today is Brian Portnoy. Brian is one of the world's leading experts on the psychology of money. He's written multiple best selling books, including The Geometry of Wealth and The Investor's Paradox, and has more than 20 years experience as an investor and educator.

He earned his Ph. D. at the University of Chicago, where he lives. Brian is the founder of Shaping Wealth, a learning platform dedicated to improving the human experience of money. Shaping Wealth works with financial advisors and their clients, employers, and other organizations to inspire better financial decision making and a healthier relationship with money.

Today we're going to chat with Brian about the key themes in his book, The Geometry of Wealth: How to Shape a Life of Money and Meaning. Brian, welcome to the Gray Divorce Podcast. 

Brian Portnoy: Andrew, great to talk to you. 

Andrew Hatherley: Nice. I really enjoyed your book, The Geometry of Wealth. In it, you make an important distinction between rich and wealthy.

Would you share with our audience how you perceive that distinction? 

Brian Portnoy: Sure. And I don't think it's just a semantic one. I think it's one that has material life consequences. To me, the- the definition of rich is basically the quest for more. You have a million bucks, and you want to get it to two million. You have two million- you want to get to four million and so on and so on. The quest for more- which we’re hardwired for as human beings- it's not a bad thing.

It's a human thing- it has a complicated relationship with how we feel about our lives, but we can get into that later. So rich is a quest for more. Wealthy is what I think we all want to be more so than rich, and I use the term funded contentment to capture this notion of being wealthy, and that is the ability to underwrite a life that is meaningful to you. So rich a quest for more which is often, in fact, usually unsatisfying.

Wealthy should be a sense of- or a state of deep contentment if we can attach what's meaningful in our lives to our financial lives. 

Andrew Hatherley: You use the term funded contentment. That's a curious phrase. By funding, you mean money, contentment? Happiness? Means different things to different people, no?

Brian Portnoy: Yeah- yes and no. There's this thing called the human condition. There's nothing particularly unique or special about either of us or anybody else listening to this podcast. We're all more or less wired the same. The question of “what is happiness” is both very complicated and not particularly complicated. 

If you go into the thesaurus, there's 30 or 40 different synonyms for happiness. If you go to the Wiki page for happiness, I think there's 3000. There's thousands of entries and thousands of editors. What is happiness? What does it mean to be happy?

How do we become happy? This takes us back to Greek philosophers- Aristotle and even before that. The fact is though there's sort of two notions of happiness that define our lives. It's what I call- and a lot of people who do research in this area called- experienced happiness versus reflective happiness.

So experienced happiness is the day to day good mood, things are going well. Yeah, you're having a nice day. Having a nice moment. You're happy. It's fleeting, it comes and goes, it is what it is. Reflective happiness requires us to turn on our brains a little bit and ask questions, ‘Hey, how's my life going? Is this, is- am I leading a good life? Am I leading the life that I had hoped to?’ 

It's a moment of reflection- that deeper sense of what Aristotle called eudaimonia is what I'm capturing in this concept of funded contentment. Money has a relatively limited relationship with our day to day happiness, but you can find ways to attach it to that deeper sense of meaning that we all want in our life.

Andrew Hatherley:  It's important- particularly for our audience who are largely people going through divorce or emerge from divorce later in life- because many of our audience may despair that having seen their net worth cut in half just as retirement was approaching- or even into it- that your distinction- and distinction of others who speak about this- between rich and wealthy really has the potential to resonate because a lot- and I can speak from personal experience having gone through a mid late life divorce- that our audience may tend to be a little bit more reflective- not always, but they may- and be honest with themselves about their lives and what led- what's led them to this particular point in their lives and being older, they- if not wisdom, then perhaps experience- and also, of course, there's the demographic issue of having of having less time to live. 

I think we need to ask ourselves hard questions. It's because people always talk about, ‘what makes you happy?’ I think a lot of people aren't sure what makes them happy or don't- maybe don't give the thought to the reflective angle.

And I know your book incorporates a lot of the concepts of positive psychology. And you use a concept of the four C's as components of funded contentment. Could you maybe speak to us a little bit about how the four C's maybe relates to work that we need to do with ourselves in order to determine what funded contentment may mean to us?

Brian Portnoy: Yeah, absolutely. So you referred to positive psychology. For those who are listening who don't know what that is, you could just think of it as the science of happiness. There's lots of different branches of psychology. Some speak to our evolutionary roots, some speak to how our brains work, and there's a whole- now huge field. It was invented about 30, 35 years ago, but it's a huge field of positive psychology that really looks at the underlying sources of a life well-lived.

In the way that I write about it based on just being around the world for about half a century and having some good days and some bad days, but also, understanding the science, appreciating literature and theology, my model for a life well lived- for contentment- has four parts what I call the four C's alliteration that- or a mnemonic- that people can remember relatively easily.

And so the four C's are connection, control, competence, and context. And we can dive into any of these, but I'll summarize them quickly by saying that, connection is as it says- our connection to others, our social relationships. We are born tribal- small “t” tribal- not Today's capital T political tribal, but we are group oriented and we gain not only safety, but also identity and meaning from the groups that we associate with.

So one deep source of contentment in life is the richness of the connections that we have to others. On the other side of the coin- control- we like to be loyal to the group, but we also want to do our own thing. We want autonomy. We want a sense of belonging, but then we also want a sense of autonomy- the ability to do whatever we want in life, freedom, independence, liberty. These are good things. 

The third C is competence which refers to what we do for a living. You go to a party and people say ‘Hey, what do you do?’ Spoiler alert, they don't really care what you do. What they're trying to do is trying to get a sense of your identity. Where are you coming from?

Work, broadly speaking- not just what we do in the office from nine to five- but our vocation, our hobbies, our skills- those talents and passions. Those are a deep source of meaning in our day to day lives. And then the third- I'm sorry- fourth C is context, which is a kind of a broad catch all.

But this basically speaks to the very powerful, I think, evidenced notion that when we believe that we are living for something well beyond ourselves we tend to be happier to have more meaningful lives- happier in the reflective happiness sense. Historically that broader context tends to land in one of two places.

One is faith. The other is place. So whether it's religion or spirituality or some sense of just being connected to the cosmos- that's obviously through all of human history something that's very important. And then place is also hugely important. Our hometown pride. Our patriotism, our love of nation- these are things that are deeply meaningful to us.

So stepping back up to a mile high view, when we are evaluating- this is- by the way, Andrew- this is- we haven't gotten the money yet at all, but the important first step here is to have a functioning framework or mental model for thinking about what in life is really meaningful to us. The four C's are what's really meaningful to us- connection, control, competence, and context. 

Andrew Hatherley: Precisely. And of course, what good is money if it's not funding these things that are important to the core of yourself as a human being? And maybe the financial services industry does it the other way around or the wrong way around and focuses on the number first.

I'm fascinated by your construct of the four C's because I think when you mentioned connection, I thought of the Harvard study of adult development, which I believe started in the thirties with 700 men and has continued up until this time. I think maybe 40 or 50 of the original participants are still alive.

And that study conclusively showed that what matters more than money- more than even diet and fitness- is the quality of the relationships in our lives and the connection. So I think your point of connection certainly is in line with what- what they've been discussing at Harvard. 

Brian Portnoy: Yeah, and that study- and so that's the longest study in history- a continuous study in history on- kind of- the sources of human flourishing. And yeah, you're right to say that they present a lot of evidence that what's most important to us is the connections that we build and maintain over time. They're hardly the first people.

This has been a point that's been understood for millennia. But they bring evidence to bear that's unique and powerful. And yeah, bottom line for them is if you have rich social ties, you have the opportunity to lead a very good life. 

Andrew Hatherley: You talk also about competence. When I was going- I still am going through my journey, I came across a tool called the VIA Strengths Survey and Classification. And it seems to me that when you talk about competence in work and being good at something you care about- that's an element of this more profound view of happiness when you're exercising your strengths to do your work.

You're just- you feel in- feel like you're in the right place and you're doing the right thing. 

Brian Portnoy: And yeah, there's a term- there's a term for that from positive psychology which is flow. 

Andrew Hatherley: Ah right, right. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I can't pronounce his name. 

Brian Portnoy: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For anyone listening, there's about 29 letters in there.

I couldn't begin to try to spell it, but he did a lot of the pioneering work on this idea of flow, and people will appreciate that- you are working on something at the office home office or old school office, you're engaged in a hobby or some sort of activity, and you look up and you realize an hour or two has passed right and you and basically time has stopped. That's what's known as a flow state.

It's a particular neurological condition. It's a very good thing. We rarely feel better than when we find flow. Sometimes- actually much of the time- it's hard to find flow, but when I talk about competence as one of the four deep sources of a meaningful life- you know- the tip of the spear of that experience is those sorts of flow states and appreciating- you know- being self aware of the types of things that spark those moments or episodes of flow and trying to do more of them.

Andrew Hatherley: No, exactly. And I'm curious. You mentioned it. When do you find yourself in a flow state, if you don't mind giving us a-

Brian Portnoy: Writing. Writing is a very happy place for me. And we- let's continue to- to interrogate this notion of happiness. Like I'm miserable half the time that I'm writing. Every serious writer writes to figure out what he or she thinks. No good writer has all of their thoughts formed, and then you're just basically writing them down. 

No, the process is crawling on broken glass, but I cherish those moments and I run a business now and don't have the time like I used to write like I used to, but that is- there's other examples but the one that I think is, easiest for me to talk about is- is writing.

Andrew Hatherley: That certainly resonates with me as well. I think music's another thing, but with writing- I'm glad you pointed out- because people seem to think people pick an inspiration out of the sky- but writing is a laborious process, and the creativity comes in the doing. It's actually sitting down and- and doing the work that will prompt the moments of inspiration. It's much more akin to digging a ditch than it is some of the more ephemeral ideas people might have about the writing process. 

Brian Portnoy: Yeah, I think- I think generally, Andrew- the things that really matter to us are not necessarily easy.

That there is deep value in the struggle, even the- the suffering that's involved with doing those things. So you know, if you're a musician and you're learning your instruments there's a lot of moments of frustration there-

Andrew Hatherley: Bleeding fingers. Yeah. 

Brian Portnoy: Yeah, yeah- bleeding fingers.

It's a nice- it's a nice image. It's a nice metaphor for what anybody in any walk of life experiences when they really put their back and heart into something that matters to them. And- again- it could be at the workplace in terms of the tasks that you do. You love reading or analyzing or writing or building relationships or things like that.

Or these other hobbies or vocations- you're a painter, a sculptor, a musician, a writer. Sports. Think about just losing yourself in the game. You're running full court hoops or you play ultimate Frisbee. Or pickleball or whatever it is, but boom- an hour or three has gone by, and you've given your brain a rest because you're not thinking about anything, which is lovely.

Andrew Hatherley: No, it's right. And I think the key component is losing track of time. I remember in the mid nineties, I was at a film school in New York and I was in the editing room, and didn't have a cell phone, and I didn't have a watch. And I think I went in at six o'clock to edit this short, three minute movie that I'd- that I'd shot, and I became so engrossed in it before I knew it, it was midnight and six hours had passed and I don't know where the time had gone. 

But I think I see that as akin to a flow state and certainly encourage people to consider- to do that sort of reflection- to think what a flow state might be- might be for them. You mentioned an important component of your- one of your C's is context and being part of something bigger.

I rarely- and you mentioned the negative side or the negative interpretation of tribalism. I rarely see happy people- I rarely see a happy misanthrope. I rarely see a happy person who's so tied into sort of the tribalism that they just disdain for- this disdain half the population or more. And I think what you're trying to say with context, because it comes up in your book, I think you quote Jonathan Haidt and you say other people matter.

Other people matter to our happiness, and I ascribe- there's a term- helper's high. Could you speak a little bit about the terms of relations with others and getting out of your head as part of- as part of the contentment that you talk about? 

Brian Portnoy: Yeah, so I don't want to conflate terms because we're covering both context and connection here when John Haidt who's a popular- very fantastic- social psychologist- when he says that other people matter, that that's a function of connection, and it's- there- there's a bit of a misconception among some that, we're born into the world as these sort of individuals who are sovereign and a blank slate and are born with nothing but liberty and freedom. And to some extent we are. The fact is that we are genetically wired from birth to be connected to others- that the development of our brains and everything else is tied to the nature and rich- and richness of the connection that that we have. 

So when Haidt says that other people matter it's just not, ‘Hey, we like having friends or it's good to pal around with people.’ It's that our very development as a human being is a function of the other human beings that we interact with from the moment we are born. Context is- and these- look these terms aren't all perfectly standalone containers, but context isn't really about your social relationships.

Context is about the ideas that you have- about the- the bigger world around you. And so if you think about faith, or religion, or spirituality, I think that's the one that would come to mind for most people. And religions are effectively very elaborate stories that connect many dots into a coherent narrative that make a lot of- make our lives make a lot of sense.

And there's a lot of religions out there a lot of stories- and people buy into different ones. And we feel really good about that. There's some research to- plenty of research actually- to show that religious or devout individuals have a greater sense of happiness or well-being because the world makes sense to them.

Conversely, when you don't have a story that helps you- that you feel good about and that is coherent then your sense of well being is lower. And religion is the big one- the really big one. Place is another one. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I've lived in Chicago now for 30 plus years, but I'm still a Steelers fan and will be till the day I die and very happy that my sons are Steelers fans.

And I hope that their kids are Steelers fans. And there's a certain set of memories about growing up there that I cherish. And you could- anybody could have their own story about their hometown or their state or their region or their country. There's other things like love of the world- love of the environment.

A lot of people- globally- they gain meaning from having a sense that they are attached to the natural world. And to some extent are responsible for protecting it. That's another idea that would fall under the context umbrella. All of these- Andrew- boil down to in- in my day to day life, what is meaningful to me?

What drives purpose? When I think about me being significant as someone on this planet, if only for a brief moment, where do I derive that significance? 

Andrew Hatherley: Brian, we're a little low on time and I would be terrible if I didn't address the issue of money. You study the relationship of people and money. I'm a financial advisor.

There's a facile saying, ‘money doesn't buy happiness’, but we all seem to be quite- quite enamored with it. Your thoughts on- on- on- money and happiness. I know it's complicated and this might take up the rest of our conversation here. But we've all seen- and certainly in the divorce world, I've seen plenty of people with lots of money who are miserable.

Having said that, I'm glad that I have a roof over my head and I'm able to feed my family. And maybe that comes into what we're talking- Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. What are your thoughts on the question of money and happiness because I know you address quite a bit of texts in your business. 

Brian Portnoy: The entire book is about that topic. The- it's- I've come to believe after- so I wrote the book five, six years ago and built a business on the back of thinking about money and meaning. And I actually think it's a little less complicated than we might suppose.

You use the old line, money doesn't buy happiness, but it sort of does. There's a chapter in the book called “Yes, No, Maybe, Not really, or Something Like That” which is the true- convoluted- but true answer to the question. We really want to go back to number one- the distinction between rich versus wealthy Rich is having more.

Psychologically, the quest for more is not particularly satisfying, which is why you can see people who have one, five, ten, fifty, a hundred million dollars not be particularly happy because there's many- there's elements of social comparison to others- comparison to where you think you should be.

Wealthy, the ability to afford a meaningful life. And now that we've done the four C's, it's really the ability to afford or to invest in those four sources of contentment. Experience versus reflective happiness, basically the day to day good mood, bad mood. Versus that deeper sense of leading a meaningful life- the relationship between more money and more experienced happiness is not particularly strong.

If you're at the point in your life where you have- say- a middle class income and you don't have to worry about food or shelter or safety- more money does not increase your daily happiness- so called experienced happiness. There's a more complicated and possibly positive relationship between more money and more reflective happiness- you know- conditioned on- conditional to whether you have thought about what really drives that deeper source of contentment and then can invest in those things.

So if you feel a deep connection to community- as we've talked about in a few different ways- into- to others and to community- to be able to spend more is a good thing. And so there's a case where money does buy happiness. If you want- kind of- comfort and independence and freedom and you value that money buys that too.

So again money buys happiness if you want to- you know- have flow experiences and have that deeper sense of competence that we talked about- there are ways to invest in that also. So when you ask- when anyone asks a question ‘does money buy happiness’, the answer is really yes, no, maybe. The answer is- it depends.

And it's facile to say, ‘no, it doesn't buy happiness’. It actually does. You just have to know how to spend it. 

Andrew Hatherley: There's an element of diminishing returns. You mentioned a healthy middle class income meeting- which can help you meet life's basic needs. But after that? But after that- as you said- if that extra money can help you do good things and- and channel that money into things that's your foresees- then the money, more money is going to be giving you more happiness.

Brian Portnoy: Yeah, so I'll give you a brief example. So there's a lot of research that shows that when you distinguish between material goods and experiences, purchase of- purchases of material goods tend to increase happiness less than purchases of experiences. Europe traveler- I love to travel as well.

You think about travel as one of the hallmark experiences that we purchase. You can actually take that word experience and break it down into it resonating with our 4C framework. In particular, I took a wonderful family trip this- I've got three kids- family trip my wife and kids and I to- to Europe this summer yes, I enjoyed going to the Roman Coliseum and to the Amalfi coast, and it was really beautiful But what I really enjoyed was doing it with the people I love. So back to our four C's What's the number one C? It's connection- relationship- that sense of belonging.

Could I be with them here at home in Chicago on the couch watching Netflix for a lot less money? Yes. But there's also something really gratifying about being on the road together and having that connection channel through experiences. There are smarter and less smart ways to spend money to purchase happiness and a little bit of thought goes a long way for people when they want to align money with meaning.

Andrew Hatherley: Brian, last question- a question a lot of people ask me as a financial advisor, and you address this question in your book, ‘am I going to be okay?- I suspect that the answer to that question requires a lot more reflection than financial advisors or the financial services industry would typically provide.

What's- how would you- if you're a financial advisor or you knew someone who's asking this question, ‘am I going to be okay’? What's- how would you address that to them? 

Brian Portnoy: Yeah, first off- just by way of preface- the company that I built and run called Shaping Wealth- this is what we do. We train financial advisors to have deeper conversations about the two big questions which are, ‘am I going to be okay’?

And number two, ‘how much is enough’? The thing is about those two questions is they map perfectly to our evolution as human beings- survive and thrive- survive then thrive. So what- what's really important at the beginning of this conversation- Andrew- and we're always coming back to the beginning of this conversation- is to validate how normal and pervasive.

The question is there's really no one out there who isn't in some sense wondering, ‘am I going to be okay, both physically and psychologically’? Our physical safety- I don't think either of us is worried about lunch or dinner today. I think we're going to be okay.

I think we're going to be well fed, but deeper matters of psychological safety, ‘will people love me? Am I going to remain connected to the people I care about? Are they going to want to remain connected to me’? These are deep ongoing issues that we all have. You know- in our minds- in one way or another- so the, ‘am I going to be okay’ question- you know for the purposes of today's relatively brief conversation- it's a matter of validation.

It's a matter of advisors giving clients permission to talk about these deeper issues, and then secondly, validating that this is normal. One of the rules that we have at Shaping Wealth is that no one is ever allowed the word- the use- the word rational or irrational. Everything in our lives is rational once you understand where somebody's coming from.

It doesn't mean that they're not making a bad decision or misunderstands a situation, but it's really important to acknowledge how normal it is to worry about this, ‘am I going to be okay’ question and that tends to bleed not only into ourselves, but my partner, my kids, my parents, my neighbors. We worry about these things because we're good people and we want to lead good lives.

Andrew Hatherley: On that note, Brian, thank you very much for joining us today. I do advise all of our listeners, get a copy of Brian's book, The Geometry of Wealth. It discusses all these topics in a much greater depth. And if anybody wants to find out more about you and the work, Brian, is it 

Brian Portnoy: Nice and easy.

Andrew Hatherley: Excellent. Brian, thanks very much. 

Brian Portnoy: You bet.

Announcement: Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of The Gray Divorce Podcast. To learn more or get in contact with your host, you can visit Andrew's website at Also, please feel free to rate, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. That helps others find the show and we greatly appreciate it.

Thanks again for listening and we'll catch you in the next episode.

Andrew Hatherley: Information provided is educational only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Each situation is unique and should be discussed with your tax or legal advisor prior to implementation. Andrew Hatherley is not an attorney and does not provide legal advice. Information provided is financial in nature.

Advisory Services offered through Hatherley Capital Management, LLC. Divorce Financial Analysis Services offered through Wiser Divorce Solutions, an affiliated company