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How Sadness Can Cost You Money

Five free ways to ease through difficult emotions

If sadness doesn’t leave us feeling bad enough, we now know that it can also cost us money.

Research from psychological scientists at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Columbia University indicates that we become impatient and make poor financial choices when we are feeling sad, and that can lead to long-term losses.

In one study, participants who watched a sadness-inducing video also tended to be more impatient and more likely to do things in the moment to feel better, even though those choices had serious, long-term financial consequences.

Researchers call this “present bias,” in the report that was published in the journal Psychological Science.

We move into “present bias” when we want immediate gratification—in the case of sadness we want to feel better—so we become impatient and ignore the greater benefits that come when we settle down and wait awhile.

This isn’t surprising. We’ve become experts at numbing the difficult emotions that show up in our lives by filling the moments with things that provide instant gratification. We shop, or drink, or surf the Web, or eat instead of paying attention to why we are feeling bad to begin with. We try out other mindless habits too, all designed to move us instantly from the discomfort of the moment, into a better feeling state.

Yet, these behaviors only set us up for future pain. Because when we numb our pain in the moment, the source of that pain never really goes away. Instead it keeps cycling through again and again. Often too, the things we do to ease the pain in the moment, like eat—the entire pan of brownies—leave us feeling bad about ourselves and then we have those negative emotions to work through.

All this can impair our physical health, harm our relationships, shut down our spirit, and now, it seems, cost us big bucks.

What if we just decided to notice – really sit with the emotions that we encounter? Negative emotions have plenty to teach us. They provide clues and insight into the areas of our lives where maybe we’re a bit out of sync. They show us where we are not operating in alignment with our values, not taking care of our own needs. They are an alert system letting us know when we are off-track and out of balance.

If we pay attention to those big feelings and get curious about them, we can pick up information that will help steer us back on track toward the things that do inspire us. The things that fuel our mind, body and spirit. When that happens, we no longer feel the need to indulge in other energy-sapping behaviors to get out of the pain—like over-spending or over-eating. Instead, we recognize what the sadness has to teach us. We allow it to help us, to guide us back into a healthy better feeling direction so that we can move through it rather than getting stuck in the difficult emotion and bad behavior.

Here are five ways to do it:

1. Become aware. When you are feeling hot with anger or drained from sadness, get quiet and notice how those emotions show up in your body before you start flipping off people on the highway or eating everything in the fridge. We can experience our emotions; we don’t have to behave badly from them.

2. Get curious and seek the gift. Pause long enough to see what prompted those big feelings. Where are they coming from? What do they have to teach you? If you are constantly feeling depressed and sad after work, don’t down the six pack, start looking at why the job is taking such an emotional toll. When you know where the feelings are coming from you can diffuse their power.

3. Take inspired action. Now, you can see the source of the emotion and perhaps even the gift of insight it offers, take some inspired action to move through it and into a better feeling space. If your job is draining you, spend 10 minutes a day, before or after work doing something that you are passionate about, something that inspires you. Often, when we build in time to do what fills our heart with joy, we feel better in the other areas of our life.

If you recognize that you are eating to over-compensate for a less-than-passionate relationship, sit down and talk to your partner, call a therapist, or take some other inspired action to manage the situation rather than numbing yourself to it.

4. Seek help. When you are in the throes of despair, grief, anxiety, reach out to others. Talk with a therapist, call up a friend, go to a support group, ask for help. We all have times when we need the support of others and social connection is a powerful way to move through our difficult emotions.

5. Give thanks. Even during the difficult times, it’s important and helpful to pause long enough to be grateful. Find one thing, one little thing, the breath in your body, the dog at your feet, the hot coffee in the morning, and give thanks for it. Then feel the gratitude in your body. When we are able to shift our focus from what isn’t working to what is the difficult emotions become transformed into something that feels better.

Sadness doesn’t have to cost you. Instead it can offer valuable insights that will connect you to what’s important and put you on the pathway of the life you desire.

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