Know Yourself

The concept of knowing yourself all began a couple of thousand years ago when Socrates allegedly summed up the purpose of philosophy in just two words: ‘know thyself’.  Since then much greater minds than mine have been trying to figure out what this really means and how we can actually achieve it.

It’s generally accepted, however, that not knowing ourselves can lead to trouble.  This manifests itself in the form of bad decisions.  Bad decisions about the relationships we get into, the jobs we take and how we spend our money.  Decisions that don’t ultimately lead to the happiness we are seeking when we make the decisions.

At a certain level I’m pretty sure everyone knows themselves pretty well.  Everyone knows what they like and what brings them feelings of pleasure.  We also know what we don’t like and what causes us pain.  For example, I know that I’m happier spending £100 on a case of craft beer than I am spending £100 on pair of designer sunglasses. So, of course, if I have £100 going spare I’m going to buy beer and not sunglasses.  I’ve cracked it…my wellbeing is improved!

But I’m afraid it’s not that simple.  I don’t think that is the knowing yourself that Socrates was talking about…and I don’t think it’s the knowing yourself that is really going to help with your financial wellbeing.

The importance of relationships

I recently listened to a very interesting TED talk by Robert Waldinger about the Harvard Study of Adult Development.  This is a study that has tracked the lives of 724 men over the last 75 years, regularly asking them about their work, home life, health and happiness.

The talk started out by quoting statistics from a (fairly) recent survey that asked 18 – 25 year olds what was their generation’s most important life goal and second most important life goal.  Over 80% answered that getting rich was one of the two most important life goals and over 50% chose being famous.  In comparison, only 30% thought that helping people in need was an important life goal for their generation.

However, the results of the Harvard study (so far) has found that happiness and wellbeing has very little to do with wealth or fame, or the status that these bring.  The study has found that the thing that keeps us happier and healthier the longest is relationships and the quality of these relationships.

The men who reported the happiest relationships when they were 50 were the healthiest when they were 80.  They could also deal better with the aches and pains that come with ageing and their memories remained sharper for longer longer.

Be true to you

Everyone is different and you need to work out what the things are that make you happy.  Personally, I would add a few other factors in addition to good relationships that I think will affect my happiness and health as I get older –

  • Appreciating nature
  • Continuous learning
  • Staying fit

Of course, the things we each think are important to our wellbeing are different for everyone and probably evolve as we get older.  However, I’ve got a suspicion that for most people the things that will actually make a difference to their wellbeing over the long-term are things that don’t cost a lot of money…or cost no money at all.

The problem is we don’t realise this until it’s too late.  We are all too busy being the young adults that think getting rich is where we need to concentrate all our energy.  Too busy buying all the things that confirm our successful status to the people we look up to (i.e. the people who already have the flash car and big house) and enjoying the pleasurable feelings of doing so.

The things we own end up owning us

By the time we do work out that it isn’t actually all this stuff that is making us happy we are already caught in some kind of ‘status trap’.  We need to keep earning the money that allows us to meet the mortgage payments on the home that is too big for us. We need to keep updating the car to the latest, faster model that we only potter down the shops in.  If we give up these symbols of our success now what will people think of us?  They’ll think we are failures!  How awful would that be!?

What we own has ended up owning us.

All the time we are doing this we are kicking the can of financial freedom further and further down the road.  The more our lifestyles cost the longer and harder we have to work to maintain them.  The longer and harder we work the less time we have to concentrate on our relationships and the other things that will keep us happier and healthiest longer.

That’s why I think knowing yourself is important.  It gives you the power to bring forward the date when you’re are financially free.  The date when you can choose to go to work if you want to and not have to go to work even if you don’t want to.  You can do this because you know that it doesn’t cost a huge amount of money to live the life that makes YOU happy.

There is nothing wrong with ambition, we should all want to make the most of ourselves, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying the finer things in life now and again.  But when it comes to the question of knowing ourselves we should look beyond the things that cause us short-term pleasure and beyond the things that are just expected of us by today’s society.  We should dig a bit deeper and try and work out, once all the ‘stuff’ has been stripped away, what really brings meaning, health and happiness to our lives.

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