This is the second entry in an eight part series exploring the connections between your finances and other areas of your life.
Last week, I started a series exploring the connections between personal finance and the other “spheres” of my life. The first entry covered the connections between one’s physical life and financial life, and today we’re looking at one’s mental and spiritual life and financial life.
As noted in the first entry, I tend to view life as a bunch of “spheres,” or areas of focus. I really like Michael Hyatt’s list of nine such “spheres”: physical, mental/spiritual, intellectual, social, marital, parental, avocational (hobbies), vocational, and financial – they cover much of what life is all about. I’ve come to view these spheres as deeply interconnected, in that success in one sphere is usually linked in some significant ways to success in other spheres (and failures are similarly connected) and that knowing the connections can help people figure out how to succeed in both areas at once.
Today, we’re going to look at a “combined” sphere, the mental and spiritual. I combine them because I find it’s often hard to tease apart the two.
What Is the “Mental and Spiritual Life”?
When I refer to one’s “mental and spiritual life,” I mean the state of one’s mind and emotional well being. Do I realize my own potential? Can I cope with the stress of life and work? Can I work productively and make forward progress on things? Can I make positive contributions to the lives of others? Do I have a sense of purpose in life?
The core matter, for me, is do I feel well in a non-physical sense and have a positive sense of purpose and place in the world for yourself and for others?
Answering that question well offers a bunch of financial benefits.
First, you’re able to handle stress and challenges without “throwing money at the problem.” If you’re able to handle the stresses of everyday life and of professional life without regular interruption to your ability to handle the tasks demanded of you, you’re going to be much better equipped to not only earn a good income, but to be able to manage your own life well without paying others to provide services for you.
Second, you feel a sense of internal purpose rather than external purpose, which often guides people toward self-directed action rather than directed action. Simply knowing what you should do next and having the internal motivation to do so again makes it easier to earn an income and take care of your life responsibilities without excessive cost.
Third, that same sense of purpose guides you toward meaningful goals, which makes it much easier to direct your finances toward long-term purposes. Having some sense of internal purpose and an understanding that your actions today translate toward fulfilling that purpose opens the door to long term goals like building a career and saving for retirement, which are necessary foundations for financial success in the modern world.
Finally, taking basic steps to maintain my own mental and spiritual health each day drastically reduces the chance of a downward spiral in those areas, which can result in mental health costs and money spent seeking spiritual answers. In both areas, addressing those concerns regularly can keep molehills (which you can handle yourself or which can be resolved inexpensively) from developing into mountains (which require extensive help to overcome and can be disruptive to personal and professional life). Mental and spiritual crises can still occur, but they’re much less likely to occur.
Here are five low cost strategies I use for maintaining my own mental and spiritual health.
Strategy #1 – Make Meditation and/or Prayer a Regular Part of Your Day
I really don’t distinguish between meditation and prayer because the practices are very similar. A prayer is effectively the same thing as a meditation using a mantra (a word or phrase or series of phrases used as a focal point for meditation) in terms of practical action, with the biggest difference coming as a result of one’s theology and religious beliefs.
Regardless of what form your religious beliefs take, a meditative or prayer practice is incredibly powerful at quieting the voices in your mind, that internal monologue that often never shuts up. You’re much more able to ignore it, which can have incredible benefits in terms of your sense of well being. I’m not going to address whether it’s a psychological trick or a gift from a higher power, but I will say that it really works well, especially when you make it a daily routine. If you do it every day, it turns the volume down on that internal monologue that often leads to a lot of mental and spiritual discomfort.
My routine is a really simple one. I simply set a timer on my phone, sit down in a comfortable position (in a chair or on the floor), and close my eyes. Then, I focus on something – I often use my breath, but you can use a particular part of your body or a word or a phrase or a short prayer. Just focus on whatever that target is. If you feel your mind drifting away from it, bring it back to focus without feeling judgmental about it – everyone does this, it’s part of the practice. If you’re focusing on breathing, notice the air going in and out of you. If you’re focused on a word or a phrase or a short prayer, repeat it slowly in your mind. That’s it – just do it every day and you’ll start to notice benefits. They’re not life-transformative, but they’re real and quite worthwhile, especially if it’s a daily practice.
I personally find great value in doing this as a daily practice. Even if I didn’t get any long term benefits at all from doing this, it still serves as a period of time each day for me to just be calm clear my head and collect my thoughts and keep my mind from rambling on and on. It’s incredibly valuable as a time to connect with your preferred spiritual or religious tradition as well.
Strategy #2 – Start a Journaling Practice
A journaling practice goes hand in hand with meditation. It’s simply an opportunity to collect your thoughts and get them out of your head in a private way that’s intended just for you. It can help you figure out a problem, organize a plan, dump out a bunch of stuff you’re trying to remember or make sense of, and you can do it all at once. You can unleash feelings and thoughts without reservation and chip through walls you’ve built up around yourself, all without worrying about what anyone else might think of them.
My personal practice is “three morning pages,” which I learned from Julia Cameron’s wonderful book The Artist’s Way. I simply fill up three pages in a journal each morning with stream of consciousness thought – I just write whatever’s on my mind. I find that doing this often causes me to start going through a process where I write down one thought and in the process of doing so a good follow-up thought pops into my head, and I write that down and the process repeats itself until I start reaching some good conclusions. (Given that journals are often very different in size, I actually use a timer for this rather than aiming to fill three pages; the timer is how long it takes me to fill three pages in my normal-sized journals, but sometimes I use bigger or smaller notebooks for this.)
There are lots of other ways to journal; the key is to just find a format where you feel okay dumping out your own unguarded and unvarnished thoughts on paper. The key is to just make that dumping out of your thoughts into a regular routine.
The goal of all of this is to simply clear away a lot of mental junk in your head. I tend to think of my brain as being like a bedroom, where I might toss dirty clothes or leave unread books lying around, and journaling is what I do to clean up that room. If I don’t do it, eventually the whole floor is covered in crap and it’s hard to move around without stumbling over stuff. Journaling is like cleaning the room.
Strategy #3 – Use Positive Affirmations
By “positive affirmation,” I don’t actually mean things like “I’m good enough! I’m smart enough!” What I’m actually talking about is simply reviewing the things you’re good at and regularly reminding yourself of them. The truth is that everyone brings at least some gifts to life’s table, but it’s easy to lose track of what those things are and that sense of not having value can lead to a serious downward turn in a person’s mental and spiritual state.
This all starts by simply asking yourself what good traits and skills you possess. It’s often easiest to do this when you’re in a positive mood already, but if you find it difficult to do this, turn to someone in your life who is a positive influence and ask them for help with this. The goal is to identify positive traits you have, positive skills you have, and things you have achieved. Almost everyone can create a short list of such things.
Then, use those items regularly as positive affirmations. For example, I might say, “I am a good writer. I can write material that helps the lives of others and do it at a reasonably fast pace,” or I might say, “I am a good husband. I have maintained a successful marriage for more than fifteen years,” or I might say, “I am a good parent. I have a strong relationship with each of my three children.”
Just make a short list of these positive affirmations and say them to yourself each day. Remind yourself of each of those things, so you never lose track of the positive things about you and the positive things you bring into the world.
Such affirmations are an extremely powerful counterbalance to the negative thoughts we often have about ourselves. Those negative thoughts are often the result of an internal monologue run amok, so such positive affirmations often work hand in hand with the first strategy, meditation, which seeks to quiet down that internal monologue.
Strategy #4 – Express Meaningful Gratitude
Consider for a moment the people in your life that have helped you and have improved your life in some real way. Consider the other things in your life that bring a positive influence to you. Those are all good things in your life. Take the time to appreciate them.
One easy way to do this is to simply list a few of them each day as part of a journaling practice. Just include a list of a few things you’re grateful for, whether it’s people or things or ideas or events or whatever it is that has brought something positive into your life.
It’s also a good idea to sometimes take it even further. If someone has had a positive impact on your life, send that person a handwritten note. Write down what they’ve done for you and say directly how much you appreciate it. Not only is this an incredibly powerful thing to receive, it’s also an incredibly powerful thing to send.
This type of gratitude feels good because it’s a direct demonstration to you that you have good things in your life. Even in moments where you feel some level of despair, gratitude is there to remind you that there are good things that persist, that everything is not gray.
Strategy #5 – Give Extra Attention to Your Physical and Social Health
Your physical and social health are strongly connected to your mental and spiritual health. A healthy body is a powerful support for healthy brain chemistry, and a strong social network is also an incredibly powerful support for a healthy mind and spirit.
I covered positive steps for physical health just last week. Exercise outside of the gym by finding physical activities you enjoy doing and making them a part of your life. Get a grip on your calorie intake and eat a higher proportion of fruits and vegetables. Cut back (or, ideally, eliminate) vices: drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, soda, and sugar-laden snacks. Go to bed earlier so you can rise naturally without an alarm most days. Practice good hygiene: wash your hands often, brush your teeth daily, and bathe regularly. Those are great steps for your physical health, which can really support your mental health.
As for positive steps for a good social life, it comes down to spending time with people on a regular basis. Yes, some people are introverts and value their “me” time greatly, but some sense of community and social contact is valuable for everyone. Keep in touch with good friends and family members. Attend social events and don’t just sit or stand in the corner. Invite other people to do things, and when invited, accept as often as possible or decline in a polite way that opens the door for follow-up. Try a variety of religious experiences to find one that works for you.
Those steps are all powerful supports for one’s mental and spiritual health.
Your mental and spiritual health is an invaluable and central part of your life. If you feel positive about yourself and positive about your place in the world and universe, you’re much better equipped to handle the stresses and challenges of daily life. If you’re struggling with those things, even the normal routines of life can be a real chore.
Investing some of your time to strengthen the foundations of your mental and spiritual life can bring about powerful financial results. You’ll spend less on services, on stress reduction, on short-term sources of fleeting joy, and on mental health support. Over the long term, that money can make a profound difference in your financial life.
The steps really are easy. Take time to meditate or pray daily. Write down your unguarded thoughts regularly. Reflect on the positive aspects of yourself. Express gratitude for the good people and good things in your life. Keep an eye on your physical health and build a good social life.
Those steps aren’t a perfect answer for everyone. If you still find mental or spiritual issues to be a struggle, don’t be afraid to seek help to get those matters straight. These tactics are mostly useful for helping you keep things on a good path rather than resolving a truly difficult situation. The focus here is on overcoming molehills; look for much further help if you are dealing with mountains.