How do we protect our human capital?

‘The first wealth is health,’ is a popular quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whilst we are working, we need health in order to earn so that we can build capital. We are converting human capital into financial capital. Without health, it is difficult to build capital. But health is also important when we are no longer earning but drawing from our capital. The healthy retiree protects their capital from hefty medical bills.

Health includes all aspects – mental, physical and spiritual – necessary for wellbeing. There is an increasing body of science available to help us understand how we can protect and maintain our wellbeing from the impact of stress and anxiety. It means that we must learn what stress and anxiety involves and understand what new skills and habits are necessary to protect our wellbeing. We need to be active participants in protecting our wellbeing. 

At this year’s annual CFA Institute conference, a surprising number of speakers came from the field of neuroscience. There is a growing realisation that people, particularly those in stressful industries like the financial industry, need help in understanding and dealing with stress. I highlight the best advice from these speakers:

Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, offers the most popular class in the history of the establishment.  She developed the class after research showed they had a mental health crisis on their campus. Her advice is simple:

  1. Your mind lies to you about what will make you happy. More money does not necessarily lead to happiness. There is a negative correlation between seeking material goods and happiness.
  2. We need to spend time with people we love.
  3. Make time for gratitude every day: it has real and quick benefits to wellbeing. Brené Brown says that gratitude separates privilege from entitlement.
  4. Helping others makes us happier than we expect.  For example, spending money on others makes us happier than spending money on ourselves.
  5. Being in the present moment is the happiest way to be. Mindfulness has real benefits for happiness. Meditation or prayer and paying attention to your senses all increase wellbeing.
  6. Healthy practices equal happy people. We all know that we need to exercise, sleep and eat well but we don’t practice it. One of the main contributors to mental health issues in young people is the lack of sleep.
  7. Become wealthy in time, not money. Time affluence is the new wealth. There is evidence that the more you link your time to money, the unhappier you become.

You can watch the full presentation and/or an interview with Dr Santos here.

Acclaimed British scientist, Dr Susan Greenfield, explained how our addiction to screens has a profound impact on our brains. Screen addiction is real. The feel-good injection we receive from social media is as addictive as drugs and alcohol. It changes how we connect to people, our identities, and can eventually impact our focus and functioning. Screen overdose can reduce the functionality of adults to the level of a child – we can literally regress to childlike behavior such as having a lack of critical and creative thinking or understanding risk. Her suggestions for combatting screen addiction surprises with its simplicity:

  1. Exercise. It helps to restore neural pathways and create new pathways.
  2. Do activities that include sequencing like baking, playing music, gardening and reading stories.  They enhance our attention span, creativity and provide meaning.
  3. Interact with nature.  It restores our brains.
  4. Engage in authentic social interactions.  It helps reduce anxiety.

Dr Greenfield’s work is available on

More helpful advice about combatting the deluge of data came from Professor Daniel Leviton.  In his talk, based on his book The Organised Mind, Leviton pointed out that the we are overwhelmed by the amount of data we consume, how and when we digest the data and how much more we are expected to work through and do. For example, think about travelling. Years ago, we contacted a travel agent to book a trip and we then went on the trip. Now we book the flights, do the research on Air B&B and TripAdvisor and design the trip of our choice. We do it. Ourselves. This kind of shadow work increases our brain load significantly.

We try to multi-task, but the brain cannot multi-task. Task switching comes at a cost. It wears us out, shuts down rational thinking, increases stress hormones and can eventually lead to burnout.

Professor Levitin, a professor in psychology and behavioral neuroscience offers the following advice:

  1. Block out hours for productive work like reading, writing or research.
  2. Limit reading e-mails and social e-mails to pre-determined periods.
  3. Take frequent breaks and allow your mind to wander a few minutes every few hours.
  4. Partition your sources of communication e.g. separate your personal and private e-mails.
  5. Write down what’s on your mind so that your brain is not busy with it. It frees the brain to think.
  6. Do the small tasks quickly – if it takes less than 2 minutes, just do it.
  7. Exercise (there it is again), preferably in nature.

You can watch an interview with Professor Levitin here.

Scientists agree: protecting our human capital or health is relatively simple. It just requires awareness and healthy habits.