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Deepak Chopra, on why financial health is part of wellness

For nearly three decades, Deepak Chopra has been one of the most influential minds shaping how we think about wellness. Born in India and trained as a physician, Chopra was introduced to American audiences on the Oprah Winfrey Show, in the 1990s. Since then, he has written dozens of books, including numerous best-sellers. His enlightenment movement is now global, and stretches beyond medicine and spirituality, and into leadership, entrepreneurship, design, and academia – and personal finance.

In a recent interview with JPMorgan Chase, Chopra shared insights on why financial health is a central element of wellness, how to stay out of debt – and one of his earliest lessons about managing money.

Here's an excerpt from the conversation, edited and condensed for clarity:

Q: | When people are faced with crisis – a relative's illness, a financial setback, or an act of terrorism – we start asking deeply reflective questions. Suddenly, we tell ourselves, "I need to appreciate every day. I need to stop living a lie." That lasts for a couple days. What is it about our brains that allows us to be so quickly committed to making positive change – and to turn it off just as quickly?

Chopra: Most people are like biological robots. They're triggered by people, circumstances and events into predictable outcomes. We never take time to reflect. I wake up every morning, and ask myself, "What do I want? What am I grateful for? What is my purpose? What is my contribution? And—who am I?"

The truth is that I'm still trying to figure out who I am.

Q: | Is that meditation, basically?

Chopra: That's a form of meditation – self-inquiry, or self-reflection. If you don't ask the questions, you blindly move around without thinking about what you really want. We all want peace of mind, and joy, and love. We want to belong. We all want to feel safe, financially.

Q: | What role do finances play in our sense of wellness?

Chopra: If you talk to people, and try to gauge wellness, and ask, "What's the one thing that would make you happy?" Most people will say, "If I had more money…."

People want to be happy in their jobs. After all, we spend one-third of our lives in the workplace. Only 20% of the people in the US are actually engaged in their jobs. The rest are either disengaged, or actively disengaged, which means they come to work not only unhappy, but to make other people unhappy. So those two things stand out: financial well-being, and career well-being.

The third thing that people say is social well-being. Which means, do they have family and friends they enjoy being with? That they care about? That have their back?

Let's get back to money, and why it's so important to people. Does having more money actually make people happy? To a certain extent, it does. There are only two people who think about money all the time: the extremely rich, and the extremely poor. They're both unhappy. So, if your money is your identity, you won't be happy. But if you use money for increasing the experience of happiness and joy for yourself, family, friends, and charitable organizations, it makes you feel really good, actually. If you use your money to enhance the quality of life—which doesn't mean splurging, but having a good life with others—then you're making good use of money.

Q: | What's the key to staying out of debt?

Chopra: Don't get caught up in the rat race where you're convinced that you have to buy things you don't need, with money that you haven't earned, to impress people that you don't like—which is what most people are doing.

If you tell people, "You can move to a $300,000 house. But everyone around you has a half-million-dollar house," I guarantee you they don't want to move to that neighborhood. But if you tell them, "You can get a $300,000 house. But everyone around you has a house that's worth $275,000," they'll move. Everybody's comparing themselves with everybody else.

Financial security comes when you don't worry about money. You're not in debt that you cannot pay.

Debt is a human creation. But if you have the fear that you'll never be able to repay your debt, that causes stress. If you don't have insurance, that'll cause you stress. If you lose your job, and you don't have enough reserves, that'll cause stress. So, the bottom line is, financial well-being is very important.

Q: | What do you know about managing your finances that you wish you'd known 20 or 30 years ago?

Chopra: When I first came to this country, I wasn't allowed to take more than $8 from India, mainly because of government regulations. I borrowed $100 from an uncle in England. In Indian mythology, 108 is a lucky number. So, I went to Paris and spent it all in one night, at the Moulin Rouge.

When I got to New York, I had no money. I had to moonlight at $4 an hour in an emergency room in a small town in New Jersey.

As I made some money, it felt easy to spend. One day, I walked by a store with a bunch of televisions. I bought one – never mind that I couldn't afford it, or that there were already 20 televisions in my dorm. Another time, I walked into a car dealership and said, "I'm a doctor, and I can sign a piece of paper and get whatever car I want." I walked out of there with a new Volkswagen Beetle.

But I fell into a trap: I didn't need an automobile in a town where everything was in walking distance. I had to learn the value of money in a very hard way—I was spending it endlessly without having earned it.

This became my mantra: pursue excellence, ignore success. Do the right thing, follow your bliss, hang out with the right people, share vision—and in the end, you'll generate abundance. 

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