The happier I feel about my everyday life, the less inclined I am to spend money on anything beyond the necessities. I stay well within budgetary constraints and save like a madman.
On the flip side of that, the more frustrated and sad I feel about my everyday life, the more inclined I am to spend money on unnecessary things. I stray outside of my budgetary limits, make spending mistakes left and right, and my savings rate drops precipitously.
I think this is a pretty normal human experience, something I’ve seen come up again and again in conversations with friends and family and within popular culture as well.
The truth is that quite often we spend money in an attempt to “fix” our mood. There are a lot of names for this – I prefer the simple “retail therapy.” We feel bad about ourselves, so we buy something to perk ourselves up. Even little perks fall in line here, things like a treat from the coffee shop or a small digital purchase (like a new song on your phone).
Those things usually do the trick in the short term. They feel good. They bring a quick smile to your face. But that positive boost doesn’t last. It fades, and often it fades surprisingly quickly. Another problem is that if you keep hitting that “retail therapy” button over and over again, it slowly becomes less and less effective at lifting your mood and you need bigger and bigger things to provide the same mood lift.
Obviously, this is disastrous from a personal finance perspective, yet it’s something that many people fall into. I fall into it myself and I consider myself to be very well organized financially and in very good financial shape. Given the conversations I’ve had with friends and with nearly countless readers and with the endless popular culture references to “retail therapy,” I’m not alone in this.
Over the years, I’ve come to find that of all of the tools I use to improve my financial state, one of the most powerful tools is simply being aware of my mood and doing little things to naturally life it throughout the day.
After all, if I feel better about myself, I engage in less “retail therapy.” I don’t have negative feelings that require therapy or, if I do, those feelings are less strong and less prevalent than they would otherwise be. Thus, there’s no need for “retail therapy.”
Similarly, if I feel better about myself, advertisements become less effective, too. Advertisements tend to thrive on negative feelings that people have about themselves, as they pitch products that pledge to fix elements of a negative self-image. If you are happier and have a more positive self-image that results from a general feeling of happiness, advertising doesn’t work as well.
So, how do I achieve this natural sense of feeling better about myself? For me, it’s all about the normal routine. It’s not big splashy things that tend to raise my positive mood. It’s a culmination of a lot of smaller things.
To put it in simple terms, the most effective tool I have for raising and maintaining a positive mood in my life is to have routines that gently raise my mood each and every day. The purpose isn’t to suddenly have one incredibly joyful day, but instead to simply raise my baseline sense of positivity just a little bit.
My Daily “Positive Mood” Habits
So, what kinds of things do I do every day to bring about a more positive mood and mindset?
For me, it’s not about following a checklist every single day. Instead, it’s just about a big collection of behaviors that I try to incorporate into my life every day until they become natural and normal. I don’t do all of these things every day. On the other hand, I do some of these things multiple times a day. My goal is to reach a point where these things feel absolutely normal and I do all of them without a second thought.
Some of these are really simple. Some might seem really silly. What I’ve learned, though, is that they all work for me. They all help elevate my mood, even if I do them every day.
Some of these may work for you. Some of them may not. As always, pick and choose the ones that make sense and try to build those into your own set of “positive mood” habits.
When I wake up, I reach over and touch my wife. Almost every morning, I wake up an hour or so before she does. Usually, I’ll just put my arm around her for a minute or so and move close to her. Being close to her almost always makes me feel good. The warmth of her skin, her peaceful breathing… it’s just a wonderful little thing to do to start the day.
When brushing my teeth, I smile big and goofy at myself. The bigger and goofier the grin, the more ridiculous it looks and, weirdly, the better I feel. I just make a bunch of faces at myself while I’m brushing my teeth and for a few seconds afterwards and I just feel more happy about myself. I think, on some level, it’s about coming to terms with the way I look in the mirror. It’s okay to look a little goofy, so have fun with it.
When I’m in the shower, I sing uptempo songs loudly. I sing while I’m washing myself, often quite loudly, and often with upbeat songs on my lips. I can’t sing particularly well, but I honestly don’t care. Singing an uptempo song makes me feel better about the state of my life, and the shower is a great time to do it.
I try to make everyone smile in the morning before I leave. I have three children who leave for school and a wife that leaves for work in the morning, leaving me at home to get to my own work. Before everyone leaves, however, I make a conscious effort to get everyone to smile or, ideally, laugh before they leave. I try to send everyone out the door in a positive mood, and when they leave in a good mood, my day starts in a good mood, too.
I get a little bit of exercise each day. I’m not an exercise zealot, but I do try to get at least a little bit of exercise each day. Often, it’s a multi-mile walk around our neighborhood. Some days, it might be something like 100 jumping jacks or something else I can do in the living room. The goal is to simply get my body moving around. With exercise, I find that I get the most positive feelings out of it if I push myself up to a point where I’m just shy of feeling miserable. Ideally, I get somewhat out of breath and a bit sweaty and I sustain that for a little while. If I do that, I usually end up feeling really, really good afterwards.
I get some outdoor time each day, too. The big reason for that is that your body naturally produces vitamin D when you’re in direct sunlight for a little while. The goal isn’t to be outside all day and get sunburnt. Rather, the purpose is to be outside for a little while, get some vitamin D in your system, and appreciate the environment and the fresh air. On a day without a ton of objectives, I’ll go to a nearby park and do some work there. If a day is busy, I’ll just go take a walk.
I spend at least one hour doing something purely for my own enjoyment. To me, this is a key part of a good day. Without the ability to spend at least a part of my day doing something that I personally enjoy, the day ends up feeling pretty empty. I can easily spiral into a negative mood where I feel like I’m doing nothing more than working and taking care of others and basic self-care and sleeping. I need to feel that I have the freedom to do something enjoyable, so I block that time out. It almost always lifts my mood to do something like read the rules to a board game or curl up with a great book somewhere.
I try to slip into “the zone” at least once a day while working. Being in “the zone” simply means that you’re so engaged with the matter that you’re working on that you genuinely lose track of time and the environment. You’re engaging your skills, your body, and your mind in such a deep way that the ordinary matters around you just slip into the background. For me, this is a tremendously good feeling. Whenever I slip into that kind of “zone,” I feel really good when that period ends and I snap out of it. I’ve usually accomplished a ton of good work in a relatively short period of time. I just feel great.
I engage positive people that I like at least a few times every day. As a writer that works from home, my professional life can be pretty solitary. I find that I can feel isolated if I don’t maintain some positive relationships, so I spend some time each day working on those positive relationships. Every day, I have a few conversations with people in my life with whom I have a positive relationship. I ask how they’re doing, give some positive feedback, share a joke or some useful information, and walk away feeling much happier about life.
I try hard to be productive and knock lots of things off my to-do list. Near the end of the day, few things feel better than having a to-do list that’s filled with a bunch of checkmarks. It makes me feel like I’m actually doing something useful with my time and energy, whether that’s improving myself, doing good work, taking care of my family, or something else. A productive day lifts my mood like few other things do.
I remind myself to smile more, particularly at other people when I see them. I don’t naturally smile when I’m out and about. In fact, people sometimes assume I must be in a bad mood because my natural resting face looks a bit downcast. The result is that when I’m walking through the grocery store or walking down the sidewalk, people don’t generally smile back at me or greet me unless we already know each other. By simply smiling at others and occasionally saying hello, that changes. People smile. People say hello in return. It’s a simple little thing, but it can make something as simple as going to the grocery store or strolling through my neighborhood a bit more positive.
I try to have a meaningful focused conversation with my wife and with each child every day. I can’t control the mood of the people in my life, but what I can do is understand what they’re going through and provide an ear for them if they need it. Whenever I have a meaningful conversation with one of my family members, mostly by listening to them and showing that I’m paying attention to them, I lift their mood. Since we live together and interact so much, by bringing up their mood a little, I make lots of little interactions with everyone more positive. It becomes a happier place to live, with tighter and more joyful relationships.
I go to bed early so I can wake up more naturally without need for an alarm most days. Few things start a day poorly quite like a blaring alarm clock. I don’t like it when artificial devices raise me from my slumber. I resent it, and when I get out of bed I already have a bit of a negative chip on my shoulder. A much better approach for me is to simply go to bed earlier so that I naturally rise at around the time I want to rise in the morning. Sure, I use an alarm as an emergency backup, but most days I just rise on my own naturally… and it feels pretty good. I feel well rested and not disturbed from my sleep and ready to take on the day.
I reflect on the good things in my life as I go to sleep, usually encouraging pleasant dreams. At the end of a long day, I usually find myself in bed with my mind not quite ready to slow down. When I’m in that state, I usually run through the positive highlights of my day, which usually puts me into a good mindset as I drift off to sleep. I feel as though this actually helps me to rest better at night, which leads into the start of a good day the following morning.
It’s very important to note that perfection isn’t the key here. I’m not seeking to do all of these things every single day. To do so would make this stressful, and that’s not the point.
Instead, these are just simple habits that I try to make a regular part of my life without stressing out if they don’t always work out. My goal is to make all of these things so routine that I just do them without thinking about them. Some of them are already in that category; others require more work.
There’s another piece to the puzzle, too.
Choosing to Be Joyful
Over and over again in life, one can find reasons to be upset and negative and frustrated. You might be upset with personal matters in your life. You might feel negative about the political state of our country. You might be incredibly frustrated with the circumstances of your career at the moment.
All of those things are normal responses, but those normal responses often contribute to an overall sense of feeling positive about life or feeling negative about life.
Remember, you choose how you react to things. It’s not forced upon you to be enraged about the latest political misadventure. It’s not forced upon you to be upset because of the interactions between your friends. It’s not forced upon you to be despondent because your work situation is currently difficult. You choose how to react.
Instead of being upset about current events, look instead at the positive things that are happening. Cut back on your intake of news and opinions and instead look around your local community for the positive things that people do for each other all the time without it appearing on the news. Instead of being upset and enraged about some supposed ever-present threat, look around your home and your family and see all of the good deeds and kind words that they share. Instead of vilifying people who don’t agree with you on every issue, look instead at the inner worries and concerns that are behind them and how those concerns are often actually very sensible and relatable.
Instead of feeling negative about the problems in your social circle and with the relationships in your life, choose to dial down on the relationships that bring drama to you and invest more time and effort into positive and low-drama relationships. Seek out new social circles and new social situations that are bound to bring less negative drama into your life. Look for the positives in the people around you instead of dwelling on their negative traits. When you think of people, focus on the good things they bring to the table, not the bad.
Instead of being lost in a miasma of negativity brought about by your workplace, instead focus on the good things about your job. Maybe your job is genuinely low in responsibility and stress. Perhaps you’re paid well for what you do. Maybe you have a strong relationship with at least some of your coworkers. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to be able to deal with interesting challenges at work. It’s important to remember that no job is purely positive, but it’s not purely negative either.
The key thing to remember here is that even though you often can’t control a lot of the things that happen around you and the other people in your life, you absolutely can control your thoughts and your responses to those things. If you feel a negative response coming on, be aware of that negative response and actively choose to quell it by looking at positive aspects instead. If you feel a positive response, encourage it and let it flower. You’ll be surprised how much of an impact this kind of practice can have on your daily mindset.
The thing to always remember is that the goal of all of this is to put myself in a more positive mindset so that I’m less prone to making life and spending mistakes based on negative feelings or emotions. My goal is to distance myself from things like “retail therapy” and reduce the impact of advertisements. These just happen to be the techniques I use in that journey.
What about you? What little steps can you take in your life to gently lift your mood a little every day? Can you make those things such a consistent part of your life that they become routine?
Just as importantly, can you actively choose to quell your more negative thoughts and encourage your more positive thoughts? Can you look at the bright side in the situations that present themselves to you in your life?
Doing those things makes you feel better about the world and about yourself, and the more positive you feel about yourself and about the world, the less likely you are to find yourself engaging in “retail therapy.” Not only will you feel better about your life as a whole, you’ll also find your financial state improving as well.