Photo by Jtneill; Wikimedia Commons

When a banker or financial adviser asks us what we are working on, it is easy to come up with an abstract, cerebral response such as “building security for the future” or “trying a new investment strategy.”

But the reality is, if we are going to be motivated to really work on a challenging goal over a long period of time, we have to be able to find the feeling behind our need for change. In other words, we have to be able to recognize the problem or solution in ways that influence our emotions, not just our thoughts. This means that we have to find some aspect of the problem that hits us at an emotional level.

How do you know if you need to create negative emotions (fear, anxiety, doom) or positive emotions (hope, joy, pride) in order to motivate yourself?

After reviewing the literature, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath concluded that if you need quick and specific action toward your goal, it might be most helpful to generate negative emotions. (Example: You are in a store and you are tempted to spend money outside the budget you allotted for yourself. You need quick and specific action toward your goal of reducing spending, so you conjure up an image of yourself struggling to pay next month’s rent.)

However, if you want to broaden your creativity, ingenuity, and flexibility in your approach to your goal, positive emotions will be most effective. (Example: Your goal is to teach your children the basic concepts of personal finance. You need a creative way to capture their interest, so you plan to approach the topic the next time you are having a relaxing, fun day with them.)

In general, with long-range financial goals that are more ambiguous and require us to constantly refine our approach, we will benefit most from the open mind and broadened view generated by positive emotions.

How have you harnessed the power of your emotions to strengthen your financial behavior?