By popular request, in our recent round of Women’s Circles, we discussed how values and goals influence money decisions. One of the big takeaways was that if you don’t consciously make decisions based on what’s important to you, your sub-conscious is going to be in charge of your wallet. And you might not like where that takes you.
The good news is that we can take advantage of new research on how our brains work—starting with being aware that goal setting happens even if we don’t set conscious goals.
This article includes some actionable ways you can tap into what you care about to set goals and increase your financial satisfaction. We also have a free worksheet to help get you started.
First things first:
What is financial satisfaction?
“Satisfaction” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the fulfillment of one's wishes, expectations, needs, or the pleasure derived from said fulfillment. In our financial lives, “satisfaction” is as much—if not more—an emotional issue as it is a material one.
Adding to the complication is the highly subjective nature of satisfaction, as it is greatly influenced by an individual’s upbringing, attitudes, and beliefs. Moreover, satisfaction isn’t set in stone. Priorities can change over time and such changes definitely affect our feelings of satisfaction.
Positive or negative, the source of the feeling can be unclear: for example, a person can know on an intellectual level that they are financially independent, but not feel financially secure on an emotional level.
Are you satisfied or dissatisfied?
Two people can feel very differently about the same circumstance. One could be very happy earning a salary of $100,000, while another could feel insulted or discouraged by it. One person could be very comfortable carrying an ongoing credit card balance of $5,000 while another person could feel horribly stressed out by any balance carried.
Your feeling of satisfaction can change over time. A person could live with disorganized financial records for years with little concern, and then one day, that person finds they absolutely can’t take it a second longer. Another example: for many individuals, their desire to increase their charitable giving grows in importance over time, as does the sense of satisfaction they receive from sharing their wealth.
Dissatisfaction can lead to feelings of inadequacy when it comes to financial matters, to the extreme of putting off making financial decisions for fear of revealing a “lack of financial savvy.”
How brain chemistry factors in
The reticular activating system (RAS) is a cluster of nerve pathways at your brain stem that helps you sort through amazing amounts of sensory data and organize it according to your reigning definition of personal or physical importance.
In fact, the medical term “reticular” means “netlike structure.” It’s like your own personal net that filters for the things your brain thinks matter in your life.
The RAS is the reason why you find yourself suddenly hearing everyone talk about something you’ve become interested in. It naturally hunts for the subject so you’re much more likely to notice it in conversation or elsewhere.
This process, also known as habituation, is a process in which the brain learns to ignore repetitive, meaningless stimuli while remaining sensitive to others. The same goes with what makes up your identity—the RAS is why you suddenly snap to attention when you think you hear your name called.
The RAS is involved in almost everything a person does, and it filters for what you care about, responding by activating the cerebral cortex with energy.
Take advantage of your brain’s chemistry to increase satisfaction
The RAS filters without interpreting the quality or type of input, meaning it works automatically, without our conscious control.
So, what do you care about? Do your goals reflect this? What about your habits? (Goals typically have an endpoint, whereas habits are ongoing activities.) Here’s where aligning our values, goals, and money can help.
Imagine how helpful our brains could be if we were clear about where we wanted our attention to go.
Values: What matters most to us
Values can be:
- Principles or standards we consider important, such as honesty, loyalty, or altruism.
- Intangibles that keep us motivated. Motivators vary from person to person, but examples include wealth, recognition, achievement, intelligence, creativity, challenge, adventure, harmony, and so on.
- What we hold most dear, such as our families, our faith, our health.
Values provide both the purpose for our activities and the criteria for how we allocate our personal resources of time, energy, skills, and money. When there is in-congruence between our values and the way we “spend” our personal resources, inner conflict or dissatisfaction will result.
Why goal setting works, even if we don’t set goals
Our conscious brains are built like a series of processors in a computer, only capable of one conscious action or thought at a time. If we don’t set conscious goals, our brains set them subconsciously.
And when subconscious and conscious goals disagree, subconscious goals tend to win out. Why? Reward and punishment hormones motivate our subconscious. As we learned before about the RAS, our brains will filter information from the environment. But they prioritize information that relates to subconscious goals. Our brains will deliver pain or pleasure to reward or encourage progress on an unconscious goal—even if this results in decisions we’ll later regret!
Setting conscious goals is key
A little proactive planning can go a long way. Making a conscious effort to systematically reprogram our subconscious minds, rather than leaving goals to chance and circumstance, makes active use of our brains, the hormones that drive behavior and that “reticular activating” power.
Our conscious minds naturally gravitate to abstract thoughts and values; the subconscious responds most strongly to things like clear, directive words, self-reflection, visualizations, and emotions. Set conscious goals, take the steps to let the subconscious brain capture the goal, and it will go to work scouring data to find opportunities for us to be successful based on our conscious thinking.
And that’s how to get out of a rut.
What are goals again?
A conscious goal is the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.
Goals are things we want but have difficulty achieving. Achieving a goal means taking a detour from the comfortable path of least resistance.
Setting a goal has an immediate, intense effect on brain chemistry; goal setting naturally creates tension. It’s much more comfortable for the brain to prefer inertia. A “let’s just do our best” approach isn’t good enough to set a goal, as not fully committing insulates us from the potential pain of failing to meet a goal as well as the pleasure from achieving a milestone.
In other words, by not committing to a goal, we lose out on the helpful “carrot and stick” chemicals our brains create to keep us on a path. Moreover, not really committing keeps us from experiencing the satisfaction and growth that comes with making progress toward a goal—so even if we achieve it, we might not get rewarded with that great feeling of satisfaction that could come from it.
Values + Goals = The Will + The Way
Our brains are protective and resistant to change. Goals that require substantial behavioral change or changes to an established thinking pattern will automatically be resisted.
Values provide both the purpose for our activities and the criteria for how we allocate our personal resources of time, energy, skills, and money. Creating goals in line with our values allows goals—conscious and subconscious—to come more naturally. Connecting with values leaves us happier because we are closer to our perceived higher purpose: because we know our “why.”
Values are a powerful why. Consciously setting goals based on values helps us to establish and rely on healthy habits in support of these goals.
If you’re at a loss as to how to start identifying what’s important to you via this perspective, never fear: we have a handout. I circulated helpful worksheets at the Circle, and they were a hit in helping to illuminate values and goals. You can download your copy here.
As Tony Robbins once said, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”
Build on that with visioning to increase your financial satisfaction
Visioning is an easy mental exercise I learned about while I was working toward my co-active coaching credential; it applies here in a big way. Visioning is an internal intuitive process where instead of externally manufacturing a vision, you allow the vision to be created from your inner voice of what matters most.
This is a powerful way to get subconscious and conscious goals in sync with one another. It harnesses your brain’s hormones, rather than letting them drive the ship in the wrong direction.
What you do: get clear on your core values and then use them to make goals for the future. That’s visioning in a nutshell: what you believe in plus what you want to be or become.
How to do it:
- Get comfortable. Relax your arms and close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth for a few beats. Remind yourself of your values and goals—what you care deeply about—and sit with them.
- Get internally still and quiet so that you are able to see the vision that comes to you. This can sound a little “woo woo” and also counter-intuitive. Typically at this stage of a visioning exercise, you’d hear that you should have a picture in your mind of what you want, like a gymnast who mentally rehearses a perfect ten routine. That’s helpful down the road when you need to shut out negative self-talk and remind yourself of what you know you can do. In this exercise, however, you are focusing on your values and not what the outcome is. The difference here is that by focusing on what is important to you, you shut out the “should,” or the what other people think you should do. Instead, you listen to what you care about and see what path you want to take.
The next series of Women’s Circles has just been announced—RSVP today and snag your spot. We’ll be discussing how behavioral economics can help us stay steady in a constantly-moving market.