Most of us would like to be rich. But we probably also want a richer life.

Let's face it: There isn't much point in accumulating a hefty nest egg if saving the necessary money makes us miserable, investing it seems excruciating and the eventual spending doesn't bring all that much happiness.

What to do? We need to figure out how to make our financial journey easier-and how to get more from the money we amass.
Blaming cavemen

Make no mistake: Managing money can be a struggle. We find it tough to save. We tend to get unnerved by the financial markets. We may feverishly spend and then find we're disappointed by our purchases. Indeed, it seems we aren't nearly as rational as economists assume-and that's prompted a slew of academic research.

Our instinctive reactions often make no sense-until we recall the ancient world that our brains were built for.

Neuroeconomics is looking at how the brain responds to different financial scenarios. Behavioral finance is detailing some of our more persistent mental mistakes. Happiness research is trying to uncover why our reported happiness has barely budged, despite huge improvements in our standard of living.

These various strands of research all seem to point to the same issue, which is that our brains are poorly adapted to today's financial world, where we strive to save diligently and invest wisely. And for that, we can blame our cavemen and women ancestors.

Reacting badly

For almost our entire history as a species, we were hunter-gatherers focused solely on surviving and reproducing. Result? Our instinctive reactions often make no sense-until we recall the ancient world that our brains were built for.

For instance, our instinct is to consume whenever possible, because tomorrow there may be no food. We greatly fear losses, because a bad loss could threaten our survival. We're excellent at spotting patterns, because that can help us figure out where game and water can be found. We pay attention to what is popular, because mimicking others often aids survival. We're never fully satisfied, because the best way to survive is to strive constantly to get ahead.

But while such instincts may have helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they can be damaging when managing money. We often struggle to save. We sometimes flee losing investments. We frequently see patterns in the market that aren't there. We may flock to popular investments that are already overvalued. We spend without getting much lasting pleasure.

The bottom line: Managing money doesn't come easily to us, so we need to keep our more-frequent mental mistakes in mind-and then try mightily to overcome them.