Money doesn't bring us joy
While debt creates anxiety and stress, happiness is learnt not bought, despite all the ads, writes Carissa Casey
MARKETING people have long understood the connection that exists between our emotions and our willingness to spend money.
Buy this and happiness is yours, they tell us. And, often defying all logic, we believe them, as the billions spent on advertising demonstrates.
On a global scale, international markets rise and fall on sentiment. Hard-nosed business people are as prone to irrational over-confidence, complacency and panic as the rest of us.
Psychologists have long known that money is directly connected to our sense of security in the world and very often our sense of self-esteem.
A sudden reversal of fortune, such as experienced by the entire country in the last couple of years, leaves us feeling traumatised at the very time when a calm dispassionate approach to finances is required.
So how do we disconnect our emotional well-being from our bank accounts? And can we use psychological techniques to make this a prosperous new year?
The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) deals daily with people struggling under the burden of debt.
According to spokesman Michael Culloty, most of its advisers are trained in the rudiments of counselling, in order to deal with the emotional reactions of clients. "There are huge psychological factors, very similar to grief. There's denial, anger, blame and guilt," he says.
While these emotions are not conducive to dealing with the issue at hand, they are normal human reactions.
Psychologist Dr Elaine Ryan, who runs a counselling service (www.mytherapist.ie), says that evolutionary theory explains why many of us in a crisis focus on the negative.
"It makes sense that if we're in danger, we focus exclusively on that. Financial problems are perceived as a danger to our security so it sparks off a huge emotional reaction," she says.
The biggest danger, she believes, is that a person then engages in what is described as "excessive rumination", obsessively thinking of the problems and sometimes even begins to exaggerate them.
Life-coach Michael Comyn (www.mindful. ie) says rumination behaviours are easy enough to spot.
"It's when you find yourself re-organising the cutlery drawer rather than sitting down and going through your bills," he says. "A person in this state is experiencing a sense of helplessness. They believe there is nothing they can do to change their circumstances," adds Dr Ryan.
If rumination takes hold for a long period of time, depression, anxiety and self-defeating behaviour will follow which will only add to the person's problems.
Ignoring bills is the worst possible way of dealing with debt issues.
"Or take a person who is worried about losing their job. If they obsess over it endlessly, their performance will suffer and it might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Ryan.
The key according to the experts is to accept your fears without drowning in them. And, then, to learn how to be happy.
Dr Martyn Newman is a consultant psychologist with Randstad, a human resources company. He says happiness is good for business. "Many studies show that happy people are more creative, solve problems better and more quickly, live longer and enjoy high levels of leadership influence. In other words, when people feel better, they perform better."
People who base their sense of happiness on material possessions are often the most unhappy, according to Dr Ryan.
"If you compare reported happiness levels in Ireland in the last few years with levels in developing countries, we have scored further down the list," she says.
In addition, psychologists say that only about 50pc of our capacity for happiness is genetic or as a result of background. The other 50pc we create for ourselves. "We can learn how to be happy and in doing so become more adaptable to change," according to Dr Ryan.
A good starting point for improving your happiness levels is to measure your current levels. Dr Ryan recommends a website on positive psychology run by Dr Martin Seligman (www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu).
This features a range of simple tests which can help people become aware of their strengths. "Focusing on our strengths automatically makes us happier," says Dr Ryan.
"It often surprises me how little attention people give to what makes them happy. It can help to sit down and spend time thinking about what makes you happy. Then write a list. If you want to be happier you need to spend more time doing those things."
Optimism too is not innate but something we practise. According to Dr Ryan, this doesn't mean looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles but learning to accept that change happens and nothing is permanent, even the bad times.
"What differentiates people who survive and adapt from those that struggle and feel overwhelmed is an appreciation of the non-permanence of things. They don't waste energy fighting the change but concentrate on how they can adapt to deal." While none of these strategies is guaranteed to result in a healthier bank balance, they could definitely help make managing money a lot less stressful this year.