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Become an Emotional Investor, Not an Emotional Spender

Finding your path to lasting emotional well-being.

  • When a person funnels their emotional energy into anything over a sustained period of time, they are making an "emotional investment."
  • Becoming a wise emotional investor involves three steps: finding one's purpose, dedicating time and emotional resources to it, and constantly experimenting and evaluating.
  • Spending time with the right people can help someone make better emotional investments.

What is an emotional investment?

Emotional investment is when we focus our emotions—in the form of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—into anything that we hope over time will help us grow and sustain our emotional well-being. “Emotional investing” can be distinguished from “emotional spending” in that emotional spending is when we are not necessarily as careful about or concerned with how our emotional experience helps us improve our well-being over time.

To use a financial metaphor, emotional investing would be like putting $100 away in a 401K in the hopes that it will yield a greater return down the road for our retirement. On the other hand, emotional spending would be like spending that $100 on dinner. The money spent on dinner may have resulted in an enjoyable evening, but the financial outcome depleted your funds rather than yielding any kind of growth.

 Jonathan Kemper/Unsplash
Source: Jonathan Kemper/Unsplash

I have been thinking about this concept quite a bit since speaking with Neil Fallon—frontman and founding member of the band Clutch—on The Hardcore Humanism Podcast. Fallon discussed how he feels that Clutch fans are “emotional shareholders” in the band. I took this to mean that the fans have invested their emotions in Clutch by coming to the shows, listening to the music, and following the band’s progress. And this consistent effort improved their emotional well-being over time as they had a deeper connection with the band, its music, and with the people with whom they shared these experiences. In contrast, if you were to go to a concert to see a band whose music and development you’re not really “into,” but you still have a good time, the enjoyment is more fleeting rather than something that is consistent and growing over time.

To be sure, there can be considerable overlap between emotional investing and spending. And they may often start out the same. In fact, most emotional investing begins with emotional spending. We do not go to see a band for the first time with the intention of becoming lifelong fans. Rather we need to engage in emotional spending in order to find the things we want to invest in emotionally over time.

But like anything we want in life, we maximize our outcomes by focusing on the goal that we hope to achieve. And if sustained emotional well-being is our goal, then we improve our chances of achieving that goal by thinking of ourselves as emotional investors and focusing our efforts on people, interests, projects, and activities that sustain and nurture us emotionally and over the long haul.

So how do we become “emotional investors”?

The first step is to recognize that much of our emotional well-being is based on understanding and building a sense of purpose. Research suggests that individuals with a strong sense of purpose lead healthier and happier lives. Having a sense of purpose provides a road map towards emotional well-being. It explains the things that matter most to us and, therefore, where we would, in theory, want to invest emotionally.

Plus, by focusing on our sense of purpose, we take control over our lifelong emotional well-being. This is because regardless of our life circumstances, with the exception of catastrophic occurrences, our purpose cannot be taken from us. We can keep investing in our purpose over the course of our lives even as our circumstances change.

For example, like Fallon, many of us find our purpose in music. When music is meaningful and matters to us, it shifts from being a passing fascination into a durable and sustainable part of our identity. And by knowing our purpose and determining for ourselves our commitment to work towards it, we are able to take control of our emotional well-being.

The second step is to understand how to put our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors into action in order to achieve our purpose. So, keeping with the music example, we can connect with music in different ways. We can become a musician ourselves. We can become devoted fans of a band. We could start a podcast or online fanzine devoted to our favorite bands or genres. Whatever path we choose to operationalize that purpose into specific actions, we can now focus our efforts on specific steps that emotionally invest us in our sense of purpose.

The third step in becoming an emotional investor is recognizing that emotional investing is a process that requires ongoing experimentation and evaluation. We may start out early in life believing that music is an important part of our purpose, and we invest our efforts accordingly. But as time goes on, perhaps we recognize that music was just an expression of our broader purpose of artistic expression. We may decide that as time goes on, we want to invest in that purpose through fiction writing rather than music. Or maybe we maintain our purpose in music, but while we started out as musicians, we later find more gratification in the music “business” and want to start our own record label.

Further, as we emotionally invest in our purpose, we want to continuously check-in to make sure that investing in our purpose is helping us develop our emotional well-being. One particular issue is that we generally don’t have a single purpose in life—but rather different facets of our purpose. Thus, we need to make sure that these different facets don’t inadvertently conflict.

For example, we may assume that investing in music is key to our emotional well-being, but perhaps as time goes on, we notice that our commitment to music leaves us less time to develop other aspects of our purpose, such as being physically healthy. This does not necessarily mean we have to give up on music as an aspect of our purpose, but rather that we need to check-in to see how all of the different aspects of our purpose are working together and contributing to both our short-term and long-term well-being. Thus, if we enjoy going to concerts every night but find that having a few drinks at the concerts is undermining our health, we may have to adjust how we enjoy our music in order to fulfill our broader sense of purpose and well-being. But we need that ongoing experimentation and evaluation to make sure that we are emotionally investing wisely and holistically.

Finally, in order to be strong emotional investors, we want to build a community around us that supports our sense of purpose and our emotional well-being. Whatever it is that we find purposeful in life, it is much more likely to translate into emotional well-being over time if we have supportive people around us who understand who we are, our purpose, and why we emotionally invest in that purpose. So, for example, if we find purpose in music, we are more likely to invest emotionally in music if we have people who appreciate and encourage our passion rather than demean and dismiss it.

One could even say that we need to emotionally invest in the right people. Thus, as we’re building relationships, we can ask ourselves the simple question: “Does this person understand and support my purpose in life?” To be sure, not every person will understand or support every facet of our life’s purpose. But by examining relationships through that lens, we have a better chance of getting the most return on our emotional investments over time.

So, how do you want to emotionally invest in your life?


You can hear the conversation that this post is based on, between Dr. Mike and Neil Fallon of Clutch, on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at or on your favorite podcast app.

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