Zen and the Art of Losing Money

Last Updated Aug 5, 2011 11:45 AM EDT

Like anyone else who owns equities, I've found these past few weeks (few years?) to be rough. The human psyche suffers from a massive tendency toward loss aversion, meaning that a decline in net worth -- even if you haven't lost anything, because you haven't sold -- can take over a large share of your thoughts.
But unless your job involves timing the market, it is hard to imagine a less productive use of your time than mulling over the second-by-second movement of numbers on a screen. Here's how to get over yourself, and use that mental energy for more constructive purposes.

1. Practice random acts of microphilanthropy. In one study, researchers Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton found that subjects charged with spending as little as $5 on someone else had a significant uptick in happiness. Got a fiver in your wallet? Spend that time you would be watching CNBC brainstorming who or what cause you'd like to give it to. Buy your intern a beer. Pay the fare for that old lady fumbling to find quarters in the bus line. Peruse listings at GlobalGiving.org. The choices are endless.

2. Put a volunteering stint on your calendar. People who give generously of their time are healthier and happier than other people. And there's nothing like spending a Saturday morning in a food bank serving people with real problems to remind you that your paper loss in the stock market is kind of a nice problem to have. The HandsOn Network offers quick ways to try out volunteering projects before you make a long term commitment.

3. Do some strategic thinking. I'm writing a book about money, and in it, I argue that the most painless way to build wealth is not to, say, cut coupons and invest these meager savings, but rather to keep your base expenses low and then look for ways to raise your income over time. Next time you catch yourself calculating how many more years this latest market hit means you'll need to work, spend that time pondering your dream job. What would pay well and make you so happy to go to work you wouldn't want to retire? How can you position yourself to transition into that kind of career?

Such daydreaming may or may not work, but it is certainly more productive than watching the stock market go up or down, down, down.

Have you learned to ignore the market?

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Photo courtesy flickr user, lululemon athletica

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