When it comes to making decisions, we like to think that our rational, logical mind is in control of what we do.
Unfortunately, for most of us, our rational mind is rather like a man sitting on top of an elephant. The elephant is emotion. The little man, the logical chunk of our brain, can tug and pull on the ears of the elephant of emotion, but that elephant is vastly stronger than the little man.
Our emotions can often ride roughshod over our ability to make decisions that are good for us. Nowhere is this more true than with our spending.
Now, I freely admit that some types of spending are unavoidable. You need to eat, you need to have shelter, you need clothing. But even in the “needs” categories, there is a great deal of latitude for what you “have” to buy. I need to eat. I don’t need to eat a lobster and a steak in the same meal. I need shelter, I don’t need a furnished two-bedroom apartment in a fancy part of town. I need clothing, I don’t need a Dh36,000 outfit from Gucci.
When you really get down to it, wanting to buy things is merely an emotion, like any other. Sometimes we feel that emotion strongly, so strongly that we cannot avoid its siren song, and we are lured to our wallet. That’s when our elephant controls the little man of logic. One easy clue that this is happening is when we use the phrase “I deserve it,” or when we see a really clever commercial or our favorite influencer endorses something and we must have it, even though we didn’t know about it five minutes before.
Lately, I’ve been doing some research into meditation and mindfulness. As I understand it, mindfulness is the practice of being aware of our emotions, thoughts, and surroundings. When you’re practicing mindfulness meditation, it allows you to be aware of the thoughts and emotions that cross your mind, and if you so desire, to examine them closely and critically.
If you’re feeling angry or sad, or any emotion in particular, you can simply ask yourself why you feel that way. That critical examination often takes the power away from the emotion, because you view it more dispassionately and you can take more control over it.
For example, the other day I was in a meeting and was feeling frustrated. I paused, and asked myself why I was frustrated. At first I thought it was because I had grading to do, and I couldn’t do it because I was at a meeting. Then I thought about it some more and realized that I was actually frustrated because I already knew what we were talking about in the meeting, and so spending time on that topic felt wasteful. I was able to ask myself if there was something else about the information that I could benefit from, and actually found a new angle that I could apply in my class that my frustration had been blocking off.
The desire to spend money is just another emotion. We often allow it to control us and purchase whatever the elephant of emotion wants, what it tells us we absolutely must have. Mindfulness can be applied here just as to any other emotion, so that we take power away from our desire to purchase, which saves us money and gets us closer to our financial goals.
The other day I was out at one of my favorite clothing stores and their new season line had come in. The fabrics were luxurious, and the pants looked great on the mannequin. That elephant of emotion roared and stampeded. I had to have them. Even though I already have two pairs in the same color.
Fortunately, I was able to apply mindfulness. I examined that desire more carefully. I wanted the pants for a special event I had coming up, because I was worried that I wouldn’t be noticed at the function. I felt that the pants could help me get the attention I needed. As soon as I examined this carefully, the sting went out of the emotion. I no longer burned with passion to own those pants. I thought of a few other ways I could get the attention I needed, which wouldn’t cost me a lot of money. I also examined why I felt I needed the attention in the first place. I put the pants back on the rack and left the store.
I’m not saying that you should never buy things. But advertisers and store designers are masters of their crafts. They know how to get our emotional elephant all riled up. Mindfulness can allow us to make better decisions by calming the elephant. It can work to make you richer, if you take the 10 seconds needed to properly analyze how you really feel – and what you really need.
Zach Holz is an American English teacher living and working in Dubai. He writes about financial freedom and other happy things at his blog The Happiest Teacher.