What about the mindfulness part of financial mindfulness

One crucial component within the Financial Mindfulness program is the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness by itself isn’t the answer to financial stress, money worries and financial anxiety, but it is an element of our solution. As a way of approaching our personal finances, maintaining an approach of financial mindfulness can significantly benefit our mindset.

When it comes to how we interact with money, the optimum state is one of financial mindfulness.

Financial mindfulness is described as having awareness and paying attention to your finances and financial behaviours. It means more than being money smart or financially savvy, as it includes the capacity to regulate emotional responses that can lead to unhelpful financial behaviour and financial stress.

Founder & CEO Andrew Fleming explains the genesis of Financial Mindfulness.

“About five years ago, I was in a dark place; whilst in hospital I was introduced to mindfulness and started practising 10 minutes a day.  It was around the fourth day it started to shift my thinking and feeling.  I felt calmer and could focus better.  This experience planted the seed of Financial Mindfulness. I knew this practice could be applied in helping to reduce financial stress.”

“By incorporating a short practice of mindfulness tailored around learning financial literacy and goal setting, increases the chance of retaining new information and applying it in practice”.

“Financial Mindfulness, the company was born, and I have been extremely fortunate with the professionals who have joined the team.”

The program was developed by leading Neuropsychologists, Financial experts, Mindfulness practitioners, scholars and research scientists in Stress Management, Data and Biopsychosocial statistics.

The app measures and reduces financial stress by integrating financial literacy, mindfulness, goal setting and behavioural tools on Paying Bills, Managing Credit Cards, Managing Mortgages, Unexpected Expenses and more.

The mindfulness component of the modules can be a curious experience for newcomers or even foreign. Consistency applied, anyone can achieve the same experience of becoming calmer and improved focus and concentration.

What if you have tried Mindfulness, and it’s not really ‘working’. And how can you be sure if it’s doing anything at all?

It’s worth noting that a starting point of using mindfulness meditation as a tool to find self-improvement is, apparently, backwards.

“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better; it’s about befriending who we are,” the world-famous American meditation teacher and author Pema Chodron said.

Chodron, was a stressed-out schoolteacher called Deirdre Blomfield-Brown until she was crippled by depression following the end of her second marriage in the 1970s.

So how does Chodron, one of the world’s foremost experts, do it?

“You just sit down with yourself,” Chodron told Oprah in a 2008 interview.

“It’s a way of being completely open to whatever is happening in your mind, and you realise your mind is wild and crazy and all over the place. The instruction is so simple: Just keep coming back to your breath. Then you say, “This is almost impossible!”

“It isn’t, but I know how hard it is.”

Mindfulness practice doesn’t dictate that we focus on financial matters, even if we seek a state of financial mindfulness.

But money worries and concerns are a big part of life, so in meditation practice, they may well come up as you sit.

If this happens, the basis of financial mindfulness applies: observe your thoughts around finances, financial behaviours, attitudes and beliefs around finances.

Don’t fight them, but don’t try to solve money puzzles in your mind as you sit in mindfulness practice, either.

Observe the thoughts and let them go.

Initially, it will be hard – even Chodron admits her children sometimes found her uptight when she learned to meditate.

In general, if we feel like quitting after a couple of days, we are expecting too much too soon.

“You might call it beginner’s un-comfortability,” says Marc Richardson, a Sydney psychologist says.

“I tried to learn the guitar; every time I picked it up, I would sweat because I was so uncomfortable.”

“Trying anything new can be uncomfortable, and to experience the full benefits, one would need to engage for quite a while.”

Are there strategies, though, for dealing with the specific problems if they persist? Some of the most common include I’m overthinking, I can’t do this, I can’t sit still, I don’t have time, it hurts.

Here’s what British mindfulness expert Shamash Alidina wrote about some of these problems in Meditation for Dummies.

I can’t do this:

“When people say this, they usually mean they can’t focus; mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to develop that focus! It’s entirely normal for your mind to wander off when you’re meditating.

“However, as soon as you’ve noticed, bring your focus back to the object of attention specified in the meditation (often your breath).

“Each time … you’re training your mind to be more focused in the future. Remember, you can’t fail at meditation. As long as you try, you’ve succeeded.”

I can’t sit still:

“Some meditations require you to be … still for half an hour, but many don’t need this—you [can do a] body scan meditation lying down. And mindful yoga, walking or tai chi is meditation in movement.

“A three-minute mindfulness exercise is a great practice to do daily.”

I don’t have the time:

“If some of the busiest people in the world can find time to stop and meditate, even if it’s only five minutes, you probably can too.

“You can do mindfulness meditation at any time. You can wash the dishes mindfully, you can walk your dog mindfully, or you can even have a mindful shower. So that takes no time at all out of your busy day.”

What if doing meditation ‘hurts?

Tara Healey and Jonathan Roberts, writing for mindful.org are clear on this: “Being in a lot of pain is not a mark of doing it right. However, it can take some work to find a position (or a few positions) that don’t lead to intense pain. Try out different postures and supports; a hugely important lesson of meditation is that even comfort is, well, bound to become uncomfortable eventually.

“For this reason, once you find a suitable posture and support, it’s a good idea to avoid making too many adjustments.”

Getting fully into the meditation itself can help: “People have found that as they relax that inner tension, it often results in less bodily tension.”

And what about I’m overthinking?

That one is addressed by realising practice makes perfect.

You accept the thoughts you have without judgement and gently set them aside. Thoughts are a normal part of life, and they will come and go, hence the widely used analogy of allowing thoughts to pass like clouds against a blue sky.

The more you meditate, Chodron told Oprah, “The more you have a lightness about what’s occurring in your life; it’s not about becoming indifferent to life’s experiences; it allows you to be much more present with whatever arises.

“You’re fully engaged, but you see it from a different perspective.”

In other words, you will be able to cope much better with what life throws at you.

Sunk cost fallacy and mindless behaviour

If you’ve ever persisted with a dead-end job, a loveless relationship or a university degree you quickly regretted starting, all in the hope things will somehow improve, you might want to pay attention.

Maybe you’ve endured reading a novel you hated from the first chapter or stayed through a movie just because you bought tickets – despite the fact you would rather be anywhere else.

You’ve likely done something similar with money.

Perhaps you’ve plunged money into a failing small business or felt obliged to stick with a stock after it crashed, then watched it go lower and lower. Certain cryptocurrencies come to mind.

Maybe you’ve stuck with a supplier at work because they promise to do better when they never live up to them.

Who hasn’t ever ‘chased their losses’ by doubling down on a bad bet?

All these actions, and anything else where we ‘throw good money after bad, are examples of a famous economic principle called the sunk cost fallacy, which can be applied to life in general.

It’s the tendency to continue with an irrational and risky course of action based on blind hope more than the likely outcome.

We do it, but we don’t want to ‘waste’ unrecoverable costs and time – aka sunk costs.

The principle explains why we persist with bad decisions even when they make our personal and work lives more difficult.

It’s a very human response to the loss to try even harder to win, sometimes to avoid feelings of guilt or inadequacy, or even just fear of looking bad.

But ego, politics and emotional decision-making can cause people to double or triple their financial losses, causing ongoing financial stress and emotional stress for individuals, their families and their organisations.

In the cold light of day, it’s not rational, but who hasn’t done something like this.

More importantly, how do we stop this apparently mindless behaviour.

Researchers Andrew Hafenbrack, Zoe Kinias, and Sigal Barsade published their work, ‘Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation’, Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias in the Journal of Psychological Science 2013.

In the research, the results suggest that increased mindfulness reduces the tendency to allow unrecoverable prior costs to influence current decisions.

“Meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion,” Kinias wrote in the journal.

“The reduced negative emotion [then] facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.”

Evidently, mindfulness has some power over bad financial decision-making.

When it comes to how we interact with money, the optimum state is one of financial mindfulness.

Financial mindfulness is described as having awareness and paying attention to your finances and financial behaviours. It means more than being money smart or financially savvy, as it includes the capacity to regulate emotional responses that can lead to unhelpful financial behaviour and financial stress.

It is not necessarily about having a good financial position or good financial health, but an active process of being aware of and paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and financial behaviours in a helpful way.

Another study from Elsevier’s journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2007 found “mindfulness is associated with less severe gambling outcomes”.

Chad Lakey, Keith Campbell, Adam Goodie (University of Georgia) and Kirk Warren Brown (Virginia Commonwealth University) were “hopeful that the greater attention to and awareness of ongoing internal and external stimuli that characterizes mindfulness may represent an effective means of mitigating the impulsive and addictive responses and intemperate risk-attitudes of individuals with problem gambling.”

That’s a long-winded way of saying that paying closer attention to what’s going on around you can reduce compulsive behaviour.

The researchers concluded: “In this light, mindfulness may help to lessen the grip of automatic thoughts, affective reactions, and behaviour patterns.”

Mindfulness also loosens our grip on any particular course of action, and it can help us become a little more flexible in our thinking.

It allows us to stand back from a problem and look at it holistically.

Research into the specific benefits of mindfulness is ongoing, but it seems clear that regular mindfulness practise can positively affect dysfunctional decision-making around money.

 

Why isn’t mindfulness working for me?

Mindfulness, in theory, sounds great. The deal seems to be roughly this: if I sit still and listen to my breathing for 10 minutes each day, I will be calmer, certainly cooler, possibly richer and definitely an all-round better person.

So how come it’s not working, you might ask because you probably feel like none of those things after a week or two doing mindfulness meditations.

However, that starting point of using mindfulness meditation to find self-improvement is, apparently, backwards.

“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we are,” the world famous American meditation teacher and author Pema Chodron said. Chodron, was a stressed-out schoolteacher called Deirdre Blomfield-Brown until she was crippled by depression following the end of her second marriage in the 1970s.

So how does Chodron, one of the world’s foremost experts do it?

“You just sit down with yourself,” Chodron told Oprah in a 2008 interview.

“It’s a way of being completely open to whatever is happening in your mind, and you realize your mind is wild and crazy and all over the place. The instruction is so simple: Just keep coming back to your breath. Then you say, “This is almost impossible!”

“It isn’t, but I know how hard it is.”

Initially, it will be hard – even Chodron admits her children sometimes found her uptight. So like anything, practice makes perfect.

In general, terms, if we feel like quitting after a couple of days we are expecting too much too soon.

“You might call it beginner’s uncomfortability,” says Andrew Fleming, Founder & CEO with Financial Mindfulness.

“I tried to learn the guitar literally every time I picked it up I would sweat because I was so uncomfortable. Trying anything new is uncomfortable and to experience full benefits one would need to engage for quite a while.”

Are there strategies, though, for dealing with the specific problems if they persist? Some of the most common include: I’m thinking too much, I can’t do this, I can’t sit still, I don’t have time, it hurts.

Here’s what British mindfulness expert Shamash Alidina wrote about some of these problems in Meditation for Dummies.

I can’t do this:

“When people say this, they normally mean they can’t focus … mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to develop that focus! It’s completely normal for your mind to wander off when you’re meditating. However, as soon as you’ve noticed, bring your focus back to the object of attention specified in the meditation (often your breath). Each time … you’re training your mind to be more focused in the future. Remember, you can’t fail at meditation. As long as you try, you’ve succeeded.”

I can’t sit still:

“Some meditations require you to be … still for half an hour, but many don’t require this. You [can do a] body scan meditation lying down. And mindful yoga, walking or tai chi is meditation in movement. [A] three-minute mindfulness exercise is a great practice to do daily.”

I don’t have the time:

“If some of the busiest people in the world can find time to stop and meditate, even if it’s only five minutes, you probably can too. You can do mindfulness meditation at any time. You can wash the dishes mindfully, you can walk your dog mindfully or you can even have a mindful shower. So that takes no time at all out of your busy day.”

What about ‘It hurts’?

Tara Healey and Jonathan Roberts, writing for mindful.org are clear on this: “Being in a lot of pain is not a mark of doing it right. It can take some work, though, to find a position (or a few positions) that don’t lead to intense pain … try out different postures and supports … a hugely important lesson of meditation is that even comfort is, well, bound to eventually become uncomfortable.

“For this reason, once you find a suitable posture and support, it’s a good idea to avoid making too many adjustments.”

Getting fully into the meditation itself can help: “People have found that as they relax that inner tension, it often results in less bodily tension.”

As for I’m thinking too much, well that one is addressed by realising practice makes perfect. You accept the thoughts you have without judgement and gently set them aside. Thoughts are normal and they will come and go, hence the widely-used analogy of allowing thoughts to pass like clouds against a blue sky.

The more you meditate, Chodron told Oprah, “the more you have a lightness about what’s occurring in your life … it’s not about becoming indifferent to life’s experiences; it actually allows you to be much more present with whatever arises.

“You’re fully engaged, but you see it from a different perspective.”

In other words, you will be able to cope much better with what life throws at you.

How mindfulness can help you get in control of your spending

Why do we spend money to feel good now, even if it’s obviously going to have negative consequences at some point, such as damaging financial stress.

And why do we seem to make better decisions if those decisions are planned and not impulsive?

The answer is complex, but just so you really get the ideas, first try to imagine yourself under a lot of stress. Maybe you are working and studying, and dealing with a worrying, ongoing health issue too – so you’re always flat-out busy, your mind feels ‘full’ and you have a sense of no end in sight.

Imagine how that stress feels in your body. It’s a difficult feeling, right?

Then without thinking, answer which of these options you’d pick:

  • buying two pairs of the same fancy shoes you like because they are in the window at your local mall or ordering them for 25 per cent less but having to wait a month.
  • selling your car today for $500 less than you could probably get because a buyer is ready with the cash and you want a weekend away or waiting for more money.

Many people probably favour the first option in each case because they want the ‘reward’ now.

Why? According to behavioural scientists, “present rewards are weighted more heavily than future ones. Once rewards are very distant in time, they cease to be valuable,” so says behavioraleconomics.com.

This was the finding of landmark research done in 2002 by Shane Frederick, George Loewenstein and Ted O’Donohue, and published in the Journal of Economic Literature.

Interestingly, when it’s not possible to be rewarded immediately, we will often wait longer to receive a greater reward. Research shows if given the choice between $100 in a year or $120 in 13 months, we are more likely to wait.

All this suggests when if we plan for the future, we are likely to make better decisions about money. But it depends what that future event is, and how far off it is.

If it’s a skiing holiday with friends in the Canadian Rockies next Christmas, we will probably start saving. But if it’s retirement at age 70 (as the Federal Government proposes from 2035), that feels somewhat less urgent, even though few would argue it’s more important than a skiing trip.

In a 2014 report on savings, the Reserve Bank of Australia showed “younger households place more weight on saving for large purchases and emergencies to smooth near-term consumption rather than saving for longer-term (retirement) consumption.”

“Some keys to managing decisions like these are to make those far-off outcomes feel closer,” Peter Sokol-Hessner, assistant professor in the department of psychology at University of Denver, The Huffington Post.

He suggested “to imagine how you’ll feel when you can use those retirement funds, how grateful you’ll be that your younger self sent this gift into the future.”

What has all this got to do with mindfulness?

Mindfulness is being fully aware of what’s happening in the present moment. When we can train our minds to be more aware of each moment – either through some kind of mindfulness practice like meditation, or just a deliberate change in mindset – we make better spending and saving decisions.

We can think about what we really need now, versus what we need in the future.

For instance, you may decide to do extra research before selling your car or home, looking more carefully at trends and brainstorming other ways to find ready cash.

A big benefit of becoming more mindful is it creates a buffer against the power of the external pressure to spend. Think about the hype involved around the release of the next stage of a sought-after apartment development: it’s in the interests of a real estate agent to get potential buyers into a feeding frenzy state with other potential buyers, so the stage sells out, the project can go up and the next stage goes into marketing overdrive.

“It’s not just real estate,” says Financial Mindfulness’s founder and CEO, Andrew Fleming.

“A lot of marketing works on the idea of scarcity and urgency, whether there’s only 100 in stock, or it’s a brand new order, or whatever. Think about new phones, new cars, something that is labelled ‘limited edition’.

“Marketing often works on us by getting us to make a decision before we’ve had a chance to think through all of the consequences.”

“Becoming more mindful will help you to buy things rather than be sold to. It’ll allow you to come from an understanding of your real needs, consider the consequences of your actions and respond by making decisions, rather than be manipulated by marketing.”

Mindfulness to remain a key part of what it means to be human in the future

While we look in awe at the videos of amazing robots coming out of labs worldwide on ever smarter smartphones, sceptics and academics are meanwhile busy wrestling with the real value of mindfulness.

A leading British expert has made a huge claim linking the two.

“Mindfulness may come to be seen as the core 21st century capacity, because it concerns our only competitive advantage over the machines: awareness itself,” wrote Jamie Bristow, director of the Mindfulness Initiative in the United Kingdom. The Initiative is an institute that lobbies politicians to include matters “of the heart and mind” in their policy decisions worldwide.

That’s right. We may actually have an edge over machines.

We have known for decades that machines have the potential to outperform humans in almost all areas of life. The World Economic Forum (WEF) concluded in a 2020 report that “a new generation of smart machines, fuelled by rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, could potentially replace a large proportion of existing human jobs.”

In the next few years, 3% of jobs will be potentially automated by AI, according to PwC’s report “Will robots really steal our jobs?” Increased digitization resulting from COVID-19 may accelerate this trend. By the mid-2030s, as AI advances and becomes more autonomous, 30% of jobs and 44% of workers with low levels of education will be at risk of automation.

“Artificial intelligence and robots are not just challenging blue-collar jobs; they are starting to take over white-collar professions as well. Financial and sports reporters, online marketers, surgeons, anaesthesiologists, and financial analysts are already, wrote Business Insider’s Kathleen Elkins.

The ‘technological singularity’ is the name given usually given to the point at which artificial superintelligence sees machines ‘transcend’ human beings. Some experts in the area believe this will happen before 2045, although Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil thinks machines will match human intelligence by 2029.

A slightly newer take on the idea is that it’s not black and white, and that we are simply merging intelligence – a process that accelerates the more we rely on it. Think of our use of google maps instead of street map books of just 15 years ago.

So, as we merge with machines, what parts of us survive?

Writing for Mindful.org, Jamie Bristow pointed out that some of the world’s thought leaders are looking past inevitable explosion in AI and to how our innate humanity can solve problems robotics cannot.

One of the key issues put forward at the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai was that “We need to develop 21st century job skills that cannot be replaced by robots and AI, which means exploring and cultivating what makes us uniquely human.”

Bristow alluded to the fact that plenty of parts of many jobs, such as being listened to by, for instance a GP, carry value beyond anything a machine could do.

In 2021, Bristow was more certain than ever than our innate humanity

‘As the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ advances, bringing with it increasing automation and escalating AI, it will be ever more necessary to retell our stories of purpose and value around qualities that are innately human,” he wrote in a recent paper, Mindfulness: Developing Agency in Urgent Times.

“Indeed, it has been suggested that we are entering the age of humanics rather than robotics: “an age that integrates our human and technological capacities to meet the global challenge of our time.”

A great example of this at play is how Big Tech is paving the way with the global roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines. “Globally, we will be using everything from AI to machine learning, the Internet of Things, and blockchain to process huge amounts of data about vaccinations happening in real time, says Daniel Newman principal analyst of Futurum Research. And the data isn’t just about “shots in arms.” It’s about cold-chain traceability (proper storage), serial number verification, vehicle routing and geofencing of vaccine delivery, and more. It’s a supply chain problem at a massive scale.

Another key idea proposed at that summit, by Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, was “new, human-centered thinking—considering happiness, wellbeing, purpose and meaning” in policy-making. Human happiness was also consistently near the top of the agenda, especially with mass unemployment a big possibility due to automation.

“It goes without saying that anything that we can do on autopilot, robots and AI will soon do better,” Bristow wrote.

Mindfulness could be a key, partly because it can be much more powerful than simply quieting the mind.

“Mindfulness practice is about more than just attention training. It’s also largely about developing kind curiosity towards inner experience, and provides a framework for deep inquiry into the psychological mechanisms of distress and wellbeing,” Bristow wrote.

In other words, when we observe thoughts without judgement we can see past our own insecurities and find it easier to empathise with others.

“This heightened empathy arises in part through the development of body awareness—as it turns out, the more we are grounded in the body and know stillness, the more we can feel moved,” wrote Bristow.

Psychologists who utilize mindfulness in their work might well add guilt and healthy shame to empathy on a list of things machines could mimic but would find it very difficult to do as naturally as humans. Could a machine that malfunctioned and injured its owner slow its output and produce extra reporting until it had regained trust?

If you consider financial stress too, it’s hard to imagine how machine learning can cope with the highly complex emotions involved in our dysfunctional and illogical behaviours with money – such as shame and remorse from things like gambling, impulse spending, or comfort-spending.

A mindful approach is inclined to accept the confusing, even contradictory and move forward purely based on empathy not only a focus on outcomes.

“Far from just another fad, perhaps the mindfulness craze is the start of a macro trend towards putting self-awareness and contemplative practice at the centre of human endeavour. Let’s hope so.”

It’s hard to argue with that – unless you are a super smart phone capable of understanding this on your own.

Using Mindfulness practice to help reduce financial stress

Mindfulness has been a big buzzword for several years.

The cabin-fever worry of the COVID pandemic reinvigorated mindfulness as a solution too. Mental health organisations, major news outlets, universities and of course meditation programs  were discussing the merits of mindfulness as a way to deal with COVID stress.

In recent years, mindfulness stress-reduction programs have emerged as a key plank in corporate wellness programs too – the new gym-at-work, except for the mind.

Mindfulness programs, run by external trainers and delivered in-house to stressed-out employees are in hot demand as employers seek to curtail the impacts of a big range of lifestyle and mental health issues that lead to costly absenteeism and its sneakier sibling, presenteeism.

There is little doubt mindfulness practices – which range from yoga to tai chi and the most popular recently, mindfulness meditation – work.

Researchers for the American Psychological Association, Daphne Davis and Jeffrey Hayes found many clear benefits from a broad review of prior research into mindfulness. Davis and Hayes’ 2012 practice review What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research, found mindfulness “decreases rumination” (or ‘over-thinking’), improves memory, reduces anxiety and depression symptoms, people to become “less reactive” and more flexible in their thinking.

People who meditate were found to be better at “self-observation” and could adapt better to “stressful and negative situations” and concentrate better after receiving “upsetting stimuli”.

But the issues that worry us enough to interrupt our work and sleep are so mind-bogglingly varied that general, one-size-fits-all mindfulness programs could conceivably frustrate us as we are encouraged to gradually become more mindful across every areaof life. Wouldn’t it make more sense to apply targeted mindfulness practice to one or two areas of life? Maybe the ones that stress you out the most?

Think about that: don’t we need distinct mindsets to resolve relationship issues, compared to say, problem-solving our career stagnation, compared to finding the calm and patience to cope with a major health scare or crisis, compared to the action needed to reign in our ballooning credit card debts?

One of the biggest issues stressing out employees is something not often associated with mindfulness meditation: financial stress.

The American Psychological Association’s Stress in Americansurveys consistently report high rates of financial stress. In 2020 it found that 73 per cent of Americans with a household income of under $50,000 reported money was a significant source of stress.

It’s not a one-off result. 73 per cent of all Americans rank their finances as the No. 1 stress in life, according to new Capital One CreditWise survey.

Another survey by Thriving Wallet, a project backed by Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global and Discover, found that 90 per cent of Americans said financial considerations have an impact on their stress levels

In Australia, it is estimated at least 2.44 million people are suffering financial stress, with about a quarter of women in financial stress, compared to 14 per cent of men.

The numbers come from AMP’s 2019 Financial Wellness report, which found that financial stress has affects more than personal lives.

“While many people think money worries are a personal issue, our research shows being financially stressed spills into your working life, increasing absenteeism and impacting productivity,” said AMP Director of Workplace Super, Ilaine Anderson.

The report estimated that financial stress costs businesses $31.2 billion a year in lost revenue.

While one solution AMP suggested was financial goal-setting, given the amount of distress and discomfort money causes us, could there be other answers too? What if mindfulness practice could dramatically change not only the way we view our money problems, but lead us to concrete actions that solve some of them?

Andrew Fleming, Founder of Financial Mindfulness,says mindfulness practice can help with obvious but hard-to-control problems like overspending in two ways. The first is to help you stop re-living the kind of fantasy in which it’s somehow okay to continue living beyond your means.

“You become more aware of the situation not as you want it to be, but as it really is,” he says.

“The second thing it does is to create calmness, less emotional reactivity and a balanced mind, so you can deal with the ups and downs of life. Then you are better equipped to deal with whatever situations you face, with calm focus and clarity.”

So mindfulness may not directly improve your financial circumstances, at least not straight away, but it is capable of quickly reducing the pressure you feel about money – which is by definition your sense of financial stress.

Fleming says practicing techniques like meditation can go further too, putting you in a frame of mind to find solutions to stubborn problems with their personal finances.

“Most people from when they wake up to when their head hits the pillow mind are constantly switched on, moving from task to task to task all day long. When the mind is constantly switched on, it’s inevitable stress will occur.

“Mindfulness is a maintenance tool to help develop clarity of thought to create space in the mind for new ideas and innovations, new ways of changing or improving current circumstances.”

Happy holidays: stress less with mindfulness this Christmas

Christmas and the holidays are mostly feelgood times. At least the ideas behind them are positive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t stressful. Clinical Neuropsychologist Dr Michael Takagi, says there’s plenty of evidence to show stress comes from happy occasions too: “Planning a wedding is a joyful, positive occasion, but very stressful. For many people it is overwhelming.

“Christmas is on a smaller scale, but it can be a bit like that. So, can holidays.”

A big issue with positive life events is they usually come with expectations, that’s just human nature, right? It’s normal to expect Christmas to feel familiar, even similar to previous years. It’s also pretty normal to expect gifts from people we are close to. So, what if they forget, or buy something we don’t want? It’s usual too, to expect our holiday will feel relaxing in a way that we want. But what if the holiday cabins you usually book aren’t available, and the alternate choice doesn’t measure up? The family probably complains, that’s what.

It’s important to note that Christmas isn’t positive for everyone. Research done by the Salvation Army in 2018 found that 7.6 million think Christmas is the most stressful time of the year. One in four Aussies experience anxiety at this time, while the same proportion spend more than they can afford.

Could mindfulness help? It’s never been a magic cure for the kinds of issues noted above, but there’s plenty of evidence that shows mindfulness has a positive impact on our mindset and behaviour.

So as long as our expectations are modest, a few basic mindfulness techniques can take the edge off Christmas and holiday stress.

It’s a good idea to do a little unpacking to make your mindfulness techniques effective this Christmas and holiday season, Dr Takagi says anticipating potentially stressful events can improve our chances of reducing stress. So, let’s dig a little deeper. Christmas and the holidays have the capacity to stress us out in several ways:

  1. Financially
  2. At work
  3. The celebration/s
  4. Relationships
  5. Post-holiday blues

Below we’ll look briefly at how mindfulness works and then unpack each of those trigger points.to see how mindfulness can help.

HOW MINDFULNESS WORKS

In a nutshell, by reducing the stress hormones that course through our minds and deactivating the parasympathetic nervous system that sparks the flight, fight or freeze responses. Our muscles relax and loosen, our breathing slows down and becomes deeper. We feel less agitation and can think clearer and make better decisions.

But those effects are the end result not the instructions for getting there.

It’s a misconception that mindfulness is clearing the mind and calming down, though we might get those benefits when we approach mindfulness with a good understanding of what it is.

“A big part of mindfulness is learning to be present in the moment, Dr Takagi says. That is easier said than done, it is normal for your thoughts to wander and go off on a tangent or focus on stressful things in your life. With practice, you learn to bring your thoughts back and stay in the moment.

“What we are trying to do is be aware of how we are feeling, the emotions, the sensations, how the moment is impacting you and acknowledging your reactions are normal.

“Accept your thoughts and feelings without judgement, so for example, if you’re anxious, acknowledge it and reassure yourself that feeling anxious is neither good nor bad. We try not to expect that we should be feeling this way or another way.”

Just accepting your feelings and thoughts and concentrating on your breathing, or relaxing the muscles in your body one at a time, or a very simple visualisation, and letting thoughts go, this can reduce stress. “Feelings and thoughts tend to pass and move on if you let them,” Takagi says.

Why do we need to reduce stress at all? Because continually operating with feelings of stress can interfere with good decision-making. It’s a theme we’ll come back to several times.

FINANCIAL STRESS AND SHOPPING

Situations like rushing to buy presents at the last minute on Christmas Eve, or in a 30-minute lunch break, or having to weave through big crowds to find items in short supply, or trying to tick off a long list of gifts on a budget. These trigger a stress response, even though in evolutionary terms this was obviously not what our stress response was designed to handle.

We are similarly ill-equipped to cope with financial stress, which happens when we experience chronic worry about money.

There’s no doubt stress is a useful immediate reaction for humans in some situations, like, being faced with a life-threatening situation: we can decide under pressure to run, jump, hide, or even fight.  But operating for prolonged periods in a stressed state can lead humans to make bad decisions.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident with spending money as an attempt to quell stress. Research done by Financial Mindfulness in 2017 found financial stress had damaging effects on relationships and our mental health. Things only got worse during COVID-19, with big increases in level of aggression, isolation and distress due to financial stress.

How often do we make spending decisions we regret later? Most people would probably identify with this when they reflect on purchases made without planning – especially with Christmas gifts and Christmas shopping. Overall, we spend far more at Christmas than any other time of the year and it’s growing every year. Roy Morgan Research predicts Christmas period spending in Australia for the six weeks leading up to Christmas Eve will be $54.3 billion, up 2.8 per cent from last Christmas.

‘Mindless’ shopping – where we are not fully aware of our financial position or what it is what really want to buy – can become a vicious cycle whether we are doing it online or at a real ‘bricks and mortar’ store. Spending too much quickly results in financial stress, which creates uncomfortable feelings that we paradoxically deal with by buying more for the quick feelgood hit of dopamine.

“Trying to relieve short term emotional discomfort around money by compulsively purchasing things will compound a difficult financial situation and produce even more stress. Doing a few minutes of mindfulness can stop that cycle and having a mindfulness practice can turn that behaviour around.” Dr Takagi says spending is a behaviour positively impacted by mindfulness and mindful practices.

WORKPLACE STRESS

Everyone knows it: that special kind of pre-Christmas madness in the office. We feel pressured to finish up all projects before going on leave.

If you consider the alternative – leaving projects and tasks half done – the Christmas work rush actually makes a lot of sense. Who really wants work hanging over them while they’re on holiday? It’s as reasonable expectation from our partners and families that we will not be doing work, or obsessed with work, while we are with them on Christmas Day and on holiday.

Dr Takagi says the rush to clear the decks is a big cause of tension and stress at Christmas but it can be difficult to avoid. “Sometimes wrapping everything up before Christmas isn’t reasonable but other times that’s just how it is. It depends on the company, the project and the commitments made.”

Dr Takagi admits being one of the many trying to find extra time to finish work before Christmas. “I’m trying to find an extra half a day each week to finish five different jobs. Yesterday I was writing an email which reminded me to make a phone call and that resulted in sending a different email, I was a bit all over the place and overwhelmed. Then if I’m not mindful a five-minute break turns into half hour and I’m really behind. It’s a really common behaviour to have a ‘quick-fix’ behaviour to deal with uncomfortable feelings that seems to work at the time but has negative consequences later.

“I take short breaks and concentrate on my breathing for a few minutes and that helps me to focus and stick to my priorities. Mindfulness is very good at helping me to make better decisions.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself that might help you get that Christmas rush into perspective:

  • Who wants the project wrapped up, you or your boss?
  • Will the project fail if it isn’t finished before the break?
  • Is this part of a bigger piece of work that will continue well into 2021?
  • Is completion prior to Christmas realistic?
  • Will you be likely to obsess over work, or even dip into it, on holiday if you don’t finish it?
  • Will you be more productive if you go for a week or two without doing any work? Why?

CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS

The traditional nature of Christmas plans – whether we gather to celebrate on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day – are enough to stress out most hosts.

All indications are that Aussies are that planning to splurge on Christmas gifts and food too this year, to make up for the social distancing and belt-tightening that happened earlier this year due to COVID.

Roy Morgan Research has forecast a massive 10 per cent increase in spending on food, which means crowds, long waits and products selling out across Australia from fish markets and department stores down to local shopping centres.

Heavy spending and a desire to provide guests with ‘the perfect Christmas” without doubt creates pressure which can lead to minor or major conflicts and tension.

Mindfulness can help us in several ways around the actual Christmas celebrations:

  • Planning accurately so we don’t buy too much food and serve so much that we end up throwing food away;
  • Catering to the tastes of all invited guests, not just expecting everyone to eat the same as us;
  • Having clear, simple boundaries around how much we consume so we avoid over-eating and drinking too much;
  • Being clear about the food and drinks we want and need to avoid, i.e. allergens, emotional eating, alcohol if we need to drive home;
  • Taking mindful time-outs if family gatherings are triggering instead of numbing emotions with alcohol and/or drugs; and
  • Sticking to pre-considered time limits at a gathering if we are likely to be triggered by the people present.

RELATIONSHIPS DURING THE HOLIDAYS

Isn’t it sad that one of the best things about Christmas and the holidays – spending time with loved ones – can actually be the first casualty of festive stress?

We all value family harmony highly for good reason. But under high stress we can become difficult to be around, either because we feel angry or because of another behaviour we use to cope – such as drinking alcohol, gambling or taking drugs.

Even without damaging coping strategies, innocuous and unexpected pressures and expectations can arise that can cause tension. “It happens with my sister and I. I love her dearly, but we really know how to push each other’s buttons too, better than anyone else. It’s always great to see each other but we can also drive each other crazy!”

Once upon a time, in decades past, we would have poured an extra drink or taken multiple cigarette breaks to get away from family for a few minutes. But today we have more awareness and better options. Again, Dr Takagi, suggests taking a breather in sustained close proximity to family, perhaps to do a 5-minute progressive muscle relaxation exercise.

It may seem obvious, but given the stresses of any year – especially one with a global pandemic – and the fast-paced closure of the calendar year, we do actually need to relax and recharge before going back to work.

“Stress and relaxation are mutually exclusive,” Dr Takagi says. “You can’t really relax while you are stressed.”

POST-HOLIDAY BLUES

What goes up must come down and we all know that is true of the relaxed sense of wellbeing and calm we get from a great holiday. But we have to come back to earth and face the prospect of returning to work, school and our normal lives.

A good holiday often brings introspection too: we can reflect on how to the good, the bad and the unhelpful behaviours and habits that might have stressed us throughout 2020. For many of us those included:

  • Unhealthy eating, drinking or substance use
  • Compulsive spending, overspending, gambling or shopping
  • Avoidance of our true financial position
  • Overworking or avoidance of work
  • Unresolved relationship issues
  • Thankfully, January always brings the opportunity to start the New Year in a positive way, which means a clear-headed assessment of what might have been holding us back in 2020.

Beginning a mindfulness practice can help us to see and accept reality, perhaps helping us to make form some new plans and take a few small steps towards the kind of 2021 we really want to live.

After all, we could probably all do with a better year after 2020!

Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias

If you’ve ever persisted with a dead-end job or loveless relationship or a university degree you regret starting in the hope it will somehow improve, or ‘chased your losses’ by doubling down, you might want to pay attention.

Maybe you’ve endured reading a novel you hated from the first 3 chapters or stayed through a movie just because you bought tickets – despite the fact you would rather be anywhere else.

Have you ever done something similar with money? Plunged money into a stock, a small business or tried your hand at Foreign Currency trading, something you didn’t understand? Hung onto that car for too long when it’s cost you a fortune already?

All these actions, and anything else where we ‘throw good money after bad’, are examples of a famous economic principle called the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’ which can be applied to life in general. It’s the tendency to continue with an irrational and often risky course of action not based on the likely outcome, but because we don’t want to ‘waste’ what are unrecoverable costs and time – aka the ‘sunk-costs’.

It’s a very human response to the loss to try even harder to win, sometimes to avoid feelings of guilt or inadequacy, or even just fear of ‘looking bad’. But at worst ego, politics and emotional decision-making can cause people to double or triple their financial losses, causing huge financial and emotional stress for individuals and their families. In the cold light of day, it’s not rational, but who hasn’t done something like this? More importantly, how do we stop this apparent madness?

Researchers Andrew Hafenbrack, Zoe Kinias, and Sigal Barsade published their work, ‘Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation’, Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias in the Journal of Psychological Science in 2013.

In the research, the results suggest that increased mindfulness reduces the tendency to allow unrecoverable prior costs to influence current decisions.

“Meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion,” Kinias wrote in the journal. “The reduced negative emotion [then] facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.” Mindfulness does have some power over bad financial decision making!

In another study, from Elsevier’s journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2007, found “mindfulness is associated with less severe gambling outcomes”. Chad Lakey, Keith Campbell, Adam Goodie (University of Georgia) and Kirk Warren Brown (Virginia Commonwealth University) concluded their findings. They wrote, “are hopeful in suggesting that the greater attention to and awareness of ongoing internal and external stimuli that characterizes mindfulness may represent an effective means of mitigating the impulsive and addictive responses and intemperate risk-attitudes of individuals with problem gambling.”

They concluded: “In this light, mindfulness may help to lessen the grip of automatic thoughts, affective reactions, and behaviour patterns.”

Research into the specific benefits of mindfulness is ongoing but it seems clear that a regular mindfulness practice can have powerful positive effects on dysfunctional decision-making around money.