Grow Your Portfolio the Intelligent Way

Happiness in the Age of COVID-19

By Jim Woods

Happiness in the Age of COVID-19

How does one find happiness in the age of COVID-19? I mean, if you are even the slightest sort of thinking and feeling person, you have no doubt been more than just a little sad these days, given that we’re living during the worst global pandemic in more than a century.

Yet, if you aspire to be the rational hero of your own life, as I do, then you must not let the doom and gloom defeat your spirit.

The great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables) once said, “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

Well, for many of us, we’ve had a lot of time to sit down quietly and reflect on our lives during this lockdown. For some, that can be a discomforting proposition. Unfortunately, when many people look inside themselves, they don’t much like what they see. That’s one reason why drug and alcohol addiction relapses are increasing. However, for those of us who seek the path of greater happiness despite this viral cloud, there are many tools at our disposal.

One of my favorite tools is the work of my friend, the brilliant psychologist Dr. Joel Wade. I call Dr. Wade the “resident guru of happiness” on my “Way of the Renaissance Man” podcast. Dr. Wade has been a guest on the show multiple times, and he always delivers practical techniques on how to increase happiness.

In his latest podcast appearance, Dr. Wade told me about a few techniques he recommends on how to focus your mind on what actually makes you happy, how to look at a problem from “the outside” and why focusing on the negative is not a good problem-solving technique. I highly recommend Dr. Wade’s work, especially his superb book, “The Virtue of Happiness.” You can check out his website at DrJoelWade.com.

Another interesting voice in this relatively new, yet eminently important field of “happiness” research is Arthur C. Brooks. A professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, Brooks just debuted a column on the subject in The Atlantic. The new column is titled, “How to Build a Life,” which Brooks and Brooks describes it as a column that “aims to give you the tools you need to construct a life that feels whole and meaningful.”

In the first column, “The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic,” Brooks argues, correctly in my opinion, that because of the involuntary quiet caused by the COVID-19 quarantine, many of us have sensed an opportunity to think a little more deeply about life. “In our go-go-go world, we rarely get the chance to stop and consider the big drivers of our happiness and our sense of purpose,” Brooks writes.

In the column, which I definitely recommend, Brooks outlines what he calls his “three equations for well-being.” These can help you start managing your own happiness more proactively.

Equation One is: SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING = GENES + CIRCUMSTANCES + HABITS

While Brooks says that he dislikes the idea of anything about his character or personality being genetically determined (as do I), he does say that the research is clear that “there is a huge genetic component in determining your ‘set point’ for subjective well-being, the baseline you always seem to return to after events sway your mood.”

Anecdotally, I find this to be true. One way to think about this is to consider the highest and lowest points in your life. Unfortunately, the happiness of an extreme high always seems to fade far too soon. Conversely, the relative evanescence of a broken heart also tends to fade in the same swift fashion. The point here is that, as humans, we have a tendency toward a return to stasis and an ability to get back to our subjective well-being set point regardless of the impact of major negative events such as COVID-19.

Equation Two is: HABITS = FAITH + FAMILY + FRIENDS + WORK

The key takeaway from this equation is, as Brooks puts it, “Enduring happiness comes from human relationships, productive work, and the transcendental elements of life.” And while habits such as faith, family, friends and work can be defined differently by everyone, Brooks argues that a healthy balance of each is what matters.

“Equation two is especially worth considering during our pandemic isolation. Ask yourself: Is my happiness portfolio balanced across these four accounts? Do I need to move some things around? Are there habits I can change during this pause?” I think this is a great exercise to conduct at any time in your life, but especially now. And if you find yourself out of balance, then make the necessary alterations.

Equation Three is: SATISFACTION = WHAT YOU HAVE ÷ WHAT YOU WANT

This is a tough one to navigate for most of us, especially for me. The reason why is that I have a voracious appetite for life experiences and for the things and the people that allow me to better celebrate my finite existence. The problem with this kind of appetite is that “what you want” can easily overshadow the “what you have.”

I try not to get caught up in trying to increase what I have to keep up with what I want, but it’s admittedly difficult. According to Brooks, “Many of us go about our lives desperately trying to increase the numerator of Equation Three; we try to achieve higher levels of satisfaction by increasing what we have — by working, spending, working, spending, and on and on. But the hedonic treadmill makes this pure futility. Satisfaction will always escape our grasp.”

Fortunately, over the past decade I’ve become increasingly grateful for my good fortune and for the things and people that enhance my life. And I’ve found that the more gratitude I have for what I’ve got, the happier I am — and the happier I am, the more I am grateful. Think of this as the anti-hedonistic approach to life and an approach that has served me well in recent years.

So, if you are feeling understandably unhappy in this age of COVID-19, why not take a little time to reflect on what happiness really is and how you can construct a life of purpose, virtue and flourishing?

Man is a being of self-made soul, so go out and make your soul as happy as it can be.

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ETF Talk: The Largest and Most Liquid Domestic Internet ETF

(Note: Today’s ETF Talk is the second in a series of funds designed to profit from the “stay-at-home” trend in COVID-19 America.)

The First Trust Dow Jones Internet Index Fund (NYSEARCA: FDN) seeks investment results that correspond generally to the price and yield, before the fund’s fees and expenses, of the Dow Jones Internet Composite Index.

The Dow Jones Internet Composite Index is a float-adjusted market capitalization weighted index designed to track the largest and most actively traded stocks of U.S. companies in the internet industry. To be eligible for the Dow Jones Internet Composite Index, a stock must be listed on the NYSE, NYSE MKT or NASDAQ stock exchange, generate a majority of its sales/revenue from the Internet, have a minimum trading history of three months and offer a minimum three-month average float-adjusted market capitalization of $100 million.

Eligible stocks are ranked first by their three-month average float-adjusted market capitalization and then by their three-month average share volume. A final rank is calculated based on an equally weighted average of the market cap and volume rankings.

Companies are sorted by final rank and 40 companies are selected, consisting of 15 stocks classified as Internet Commerce, with 25 categorized as Internet Services. The weight of any individual security is restricted to 10% and the aggregate weight of individual securities with weights of 4.5% or more is limited to 45%. The index is rebalanced quarterly.

Chart Courtesy of StockCharts.com

This fund does an exceptional job of capturing the internet industry at a competitive all-in cost. It holds the 40 biggest U.S. internet-related companies, prominently featuring names such as Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Facebook and Google’s parent company, Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL). FDN’s fee is in line with the other funds in its segment, but it is not a cheap to attain exposure to 40 large and liquid U.S. companies.

FDN has $7.7 billion in assets under management and 43 holdings. It has an average spread of 0.8% and an expense ratio of 0.52%. Still, it trades better than other domestic internet exchange-traded funds (ETFs), keeping all-in costs reasonable. FDN dominates the segment in assets, too. For exposure to plain vanilla internet coverage, FDN can’t be beaten.

Investors who want exposure to the domestic internet market should consider this fund. However, as always, exercise your own due diligence in deciding whether this fund fits your individual portfolio goals.

As always, I am happy to answer any of your questions about ETFs, so do not hesitate to send me an email. You just may see your question answered in a future ETF Talk.

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What Makes A Renaissance Man Tick?

At the risk of sounding embarrassingly self-serving, I’ll first let you know that many readers and listeners to my podcast have asked me how I came to be called “The Renaissance Man.”

Well, it’s a nickname that was given to me by my friends in college, and ever since then, the moniker has just stuck. But what is a Renaissance Man, how does one become a Renaissance Man and what is it that makes a Renaissance Man “tick”?

In the new episode of the Way of the Renaissance Man podcast, the tables get turned, as I go from interviewer to interviewee, courtesy of my friends and “Position To Win” authors John Paul Mendocha and Gabe Bautista.

In this revealing interview, I talk about my educational and professional background and how my experiences have shaped my approach to life. I also tell you why I love doing so many different things.

Most importantly, you’ll discover why the key to becoming a Renaissance Man is to focus on the ideas you love and then integrate those ideas into action. The combination of focus and integration is what allows one to celebrate those integrated ideas in action.

If you’ve ever wanted to find out what makes a Renaissance Man tick, then this special reprise interview from the “Position To Win” podcast is what you’ve been looking for.

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In case you missed it

The Other Side of the Coronavirus

Every time I turn around

The man tries to get me down

I just can’t see your face

I’m blinded by the sun, living on the run

And I can’t remember this place

Won’t ya take me to the other side…

–Ryan Bingham, “The Other Side”

I went to the store on Saturday. I was wearing a N95 mask and nitrile gloves.

Now, the only thing unusual about that is that everybody else in the store was wearing a mask and gloves. Such is the state of COVID-19 America, where personal protective gear isn’t just for the medical professionals at hospitals — it’s for the average Joe who’s going to the local Trader Joe’s.

Why did I wear the mask and gloves? Did I wear them because the governor of my beloved Golden State of California told me to do it? Did I wear them because the ubiquitous voice of viral authority Dr. Anthony Fauci said I should? Did I wear them because President Trump offered me the option to do so?

No. I wore them because I want to stay alive and because life is the standard of value for a rational man. Without life, no other values are possible.

Do I like social distancing? No, I hate it.

I love people, and I love going to concerts, restaurants, the gym, the pub, the coffee house, the shooting range, rodeos and other sporting events (my beloved Long Beach Grand Prix was supposed to be April 16-18). Yet, I love my life more, and I know that if I get sick, or if those who I value most get sick and suffer devastating consequences, I won’t get to enjoy these things.

So, for now, I am abiding by the rational policy of staying at home, practicing social distancing and wearing protective gear whenever I simply have to leave my residence.

Of course, the other side of this coronavirus damage is economic, and we’ve already seen the beginnings of the devastation headed our way.

Massive job losses, massive government bailouts, massive injections of capital via asset purchases by the Federal Reserve, massive new debt and an even more massive collapse in gross domestic product (GDP) are expected to be the short-term result of this virtual lockdown on economic activity.

Yet, how long can we sustain this economic hit before we start to kill the livelihoods of Americans permanently?

This is the debate that is raging right now in Washington, D.C., and throughout the 50 state capitals. More specifically, the debate now has become all about whether President Trump has the authority to “open up” the economy, or whether lifting lockdown orders and school closures is in the hands of the states.

However, do the politicians really control when the shutdown ends? Or, is it you and I, the American citizens, who will decide?

As Ira Stoll writes at Reason.com, “In the fight between the governors and President Trump over who has the authority to reopen America, the politicians have it wrong. It’s not the politicians who have the power to reopen America, or at least the parts that are now closed. It’s individuals, families, businesses and religious congregations.”

I agree with this analysis, and the reason why is because no politician has ordered me to take the proper actions to ensure my safety. I made that decision based on my own rational judgment. And, when we all get back to business, it won’t be because President Trump, or Gov. Gavin Newsom or Gov. Andrew Cuomo say so.

Or as Stoll puts it, “…when America reopens, it won’t be the response to top-down orders from politicians. That’s not how America works, not how the world works. If the president or governor says ‘open’ and hospitals and funeral homes are clogged with COVID-19 critical cases and fatalities, plenty of people are going to remain in place based on the assessment that it’s not worth risking death to comply with some politician’s restart timeline.”

So, it’s the rational judgment of individual Americans that’s really going to determine when this crisis is over, and when the economy will begin to heal. And why is that? What is the motivation for that return to normalcy? I’ll leave you with how Stoll so eloquently puts it:

“Children want to see their parents. Parents want to see their children. Grandparents want to see their grandchildren. People who haven’t yet started families want to go on in-person dates. Business owners want to make money.”

Rational self-interest is the true motivating force here, and it’s one that’s not dictated to us from the White House or from a governor’s mansion.

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The Whetstone of the Mind

“… a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”

–George R.R. Martin, “A Game of Thrones”

Keeping one’s mental edge during this global pandemic isn’t the easiest of tasks. I know that at times, I’ve fallen victim to the universal sadness, angst and fear humanity is currently experiencing. Yet if we want to prevail, and if we want to help our fellow man thrive, then it’s incumbent upon us all to do what we can to keep our minds and our spirits fresh and honed with a sharp edge. And as Martin tells us, the best way to keep our mental edge is with the whetstone of books.

Wisdom about money, investing and life can be found anywhere. If you have a good quote that you’d like me to share with your fellow readers, send it to me, along with any comments, questions and suggestions you have about my newsletters, seminars or anything else. Click here to ask Jim.

In the name of the best within us,

Jim Woods

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