How To Bank Happiness For Tough Times

Is everything in your life going really well right now? Maybe you should bank some of that happiness, take a few steps to shore up your life, love, and finances so when the going gets tough you've got something to lean on. Read on 5 steps I've used to do just that. #selfhelp #selfdevelopment #happiness #cheerup #motivation #feelbetter

How often have you seen “This too shall pass” embroidered onto a throw pillow?

It’s one of my family’s favorite sayings, something to be intoned after a layoff or a breakup and I find myself reciting it on the regular – usually while stuck in traffic.

But realistically, ‘This too shall pass’ applies to the good stuff, too. This season of life when my friends and I have free time and discretionary income, when everyone in my family is healthy, when my husband and I like our jobs and home … it won’t last forever. That’s okay! Smooth seas never made for a skillful sailor.

I’d like to make the argument for banking our happiness.

‘This too shall pass’ applies to good times, too. Bank happiness while things are easy + sweet. Click To TweetAs Gretchen Rubin writes in The Happiness Project,

“I think you can bank happiness – that is to say, learn about yourself and what makes you happy while the sailing is smooth. When the waves swell up and get rough, you have the memories of the times you were happy. You’ve been there and done that so you know it’s possible to do it again.”

So how do you do that? How do you store up happiness for a rainy day?

Figure out what makes you happy

Well dur, right?

But what we think makes us happy and what actually makes us happy – they’re not always one and the same.

Many of us believe that a packed social calendar, a big ol’ bank account, a home filled with expensive things will make us happy. And it might! MY LIFE IS SERIOUSLY BETTER FOR HAVING SPENT $400 ON A ROOMBA.

Figuring out what makes you happy is a long and evolving process, but it’s worth the time and effort.

Once you know what makes you happy, you can do more of it. And when you know what makes you happy, you can find ways to do happy-making things even when times are tough. (Here’s how to figure out what makes you happy.) 

Know your Tough Time non-negotiables 

I spent 2006 living with three roommates in a tiny, two-bedroom house, working full time while attending grad school 75% time. I was so broke I spent four weeks contemplating a $13 purchase.

I vividly remember sobbing into my then-boyfriend’s neck, “I’m just so miserable!!!”

But things significantly improved when a friend sat me down and gave me a stern talking to about non-negotiables.

I could choose my own, but I had to choose three things I’d do every single day no matter what. No matter what! No matter my schedule or budget I would:

  • get at least seven hours of sleep
  • eat three meals
  • drink two glasses of water

These super simple habits have stuck; they’re not expensive or particularly difficult but they affect everything else in my life. When I’m (relatively) well-rested, well-fed, and well-hydrated, everything goes better.

When we create a few, easy non-negotiable habits now we’ll be better prepared when the seas inevitably get choppy.

Strengthen your friendships

Have you ever done that horrible thing where you finally meet somebody awesome, become completely consumed by your romantic relationship, and stop hanging out with your friends? And then life gets rough and you realize you have no one to talk to? Yeah, me too. Let’s not do that!

Let’s put the time in now to strengthen our friendships. Let’s show our friends we love them; let’s do things other than meet for coffee and cocktails. Let’s help them through their own rough times.

Save a nest egg

Or as this post awesomely calls it: A F*ck Off Fund.

Tough Times are often Expensive Times. You get an upsetting health diagnosis paired with huge medical bills; your landlord sells your rental out from under you; your car gets totaled. Money does not equal happiness, but being broke can certainly equal stress, anxiety, and frustration.

Saving and budgeting aren’t particularly fun or sexy, but having an emergency fund set aside for trying times can be the difference between a week of eating ramen or a year of credit card debt.

Do lovely, memory-making things now

Do you remember that Shel Silverstein poem, Frozen Dream?

“I’ll take the dream I had last night
And put it in my freezer,
So someday long and far away
When I’m an old grey geezer,
I’ll take it out and thaw it out,
This lovely dream I’ve frozen,
And boil it up and sit me down
And dip my old cold toes in.”

When we do brave, kind, fun things now we can lean on those memories when times get tough. When your BFF has THE NERVE to move to New Mexico, you can remember your road trip adventures and house walks and hundreds of lunches at Trieu Chau.

When you change careers, you can remember the sweet field trips and projects you did with your students. When you’re feeling unsure of yourself, you can remember that time you backpacked around Southeast Asia all by your lonesome.

Document the memories of awesome times

Think of this as your emotional nest egg. It’s a lot easier to take comfort in those great memories if you’ve documented them somewhere. And you don’t have to start a scrapbook if you don’t want to!

I love ending trips by writing  a ‘100 memories’ list. You can snap one photo a day with your phone or take one-second videos with this app. You can use a One Line A Day journal or just send a friend or parent weekly update emails. When you want to lean on those memories, you can just look through your ‘sent’ folder.

Diversify your identity

Some of the most challenging times of my life were moments when my identity shifted.

For years, my identity was wrapped up in being an American expat; when I moved home I spent four months questioning every choice that lead to that apartment in Minneapolis. The same thing happened when I went from Teacher to Blogger, Live-In Girlfriend to Singleton, and (somewhat ridiculously) Saint Paulian to Minneapolitan.

I imagine the same thing happens when you’re a devoted mom and your kids leave home, when you get laid off from the job you love, or your income dramatically changes.

Changes like this will always, always be challenging but we can make them slightly less terrifying if we put our eggs in more than one basket.

If I’m a  traveler, a dancer, a wife, and a writer, I won’t be so gutted when I get a rejection letter. If you’re a dog foster-er, an amateur photographer, a devoted aunt, and marathoner you’ll be able to handle a torn ACL a lot better.

Of course, no matter what we do tough times are going to be just that – tough. No savings account or scrapbook can fully prepare you for a divorce or a death. But maybe they can make those heartbreaking experiences just a tiny bit easier.

What do you think? Do you think you can bank happiness? 

P.S. How to find more meaning in life + Forget reducing stress, just add more joy

P.P.S. Did you know I have a (free) private Facebook group dedicated solely to the topics of money and happiness? And the stuff we talk about has helped members change jobs, save thousands of dollars, and fight less with their partners? Join us!

photo credit: david marcu // cc

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  1. Manisha

    Great article! I was surprised at how much happiness the roomba brought to my home. Clean floors mean a clean foundation from which to build my tower of joy. Yep. The roomba means that much to me!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Right?! I CANNOT GET ENOUGH OF IT. Really and truly, it’s reduced the stress and tension in our home and given us 1-2 more hours of free time each week.

      • Jen

        Maybe the Roomba is the answer to my happiness–I have a constantly shedding black lab mix and the floors are never clean. And truly, I feel SO MUCH BETTER when the floors are clean.

        • Sarah

          Seriously. It might be!

        • Kate

          I have a beagle that sheds fur like it’s going out of style. I bought a Roomba off the back of Sarah’s recommendation (truly) & it’s one of the best things I have ever bought. Walking in & finding clean, hair free floors makes such a difference. Now I just need one that vacuums the couch too!

          • Sarah Von Bargen

            YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HAPPY THIS MAKES ME! Also: we recently bought this to vaccuum the couch and our carpeted stairs and it’s amazing. I realllly had to be convinced because I hate buy one-use items, but it’s totally worth it!

  2. Brianna Engebretsen

    I love this. Very helpful and informative. I think the idea of using the “happy” times to bank and prep yourself for potential unhappy times is a great idea. Anything that helps the tough times seem a little bit less stressful is a great tool.

  3. MS

    I wish I could get a roomba for $400!! They’re a novelty in my country so it costs like double.. Maybe in a couple of months 🙂 Like always, this post comes in the right time, not having the greatest times but things seem promising, so I’ll use your tips when I’m feeling down..

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Sending you love and good vibes, MS. <3

  4. Barbara

    I like your point about the transition times. They have more opportunities for learning, growth, change (and creating happiness) than the “in-between” ones. Because of that, they often are the memorable milestones. Have courage in the transition times: they make us who we are!

  5. Stephanie

    Tough time non-negotiables. That’s a good one. Sometimes I get so consumed with what I should be doing that I have to tell myself, “Hey, it’s OK to eat breakfast and have a cup of coffee. Might even help your productivity if your stomach isn’t angry at you.”

    Thanks for another great article.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Isn’t it funny how self-care falls to the wayside when we need it most? The things that keep us sane are often the first to go!

  6. Rachael

    I think this is also an adaptable theme; while these tips are awesome for general ebb and flow of life, I know I can re-imagine it for a specific set of the population I fit into: The Spoonies (Chronically Ill). Our good health will not always last; in fact, it is almost a guarantee to have a hiccup. So banking good health and happiness now will help us down the road.

  7. Keith

    This may often coincide with pursuing what makes you happy, but I think having (feeling) a sense of purpose has been key to happier-ness. It took me a while to notice that without it something worthwhile to work on or strive toward, I was more likely to ruminate about past mistakes and missed opportunities – and more likely to feel stuck. Even if it was a short-term project or mission,
    I would feel lifted and almost immediately notice an absence of the cycling negativity, doubt, and regret. Personally, this would also apply to doing for others (e.g. – acts of generosity) as well. Even if you believe the acts are done primarily to make yourself feel good, a “better” feeling you is better for everyone else too.

    • Kim

      This is a super insightful comment and helped me better understand my own tendency to cycle into feelings of past mistakes and missed opportunities. I’ve noticed that if I focus all my energy into one project/role/identity/what have you and am not getting the response I’m hoping for, I tend to dive straight into the rumination. But like you said, even a short term identity shift can lift you up – and sometimes it’s better if it’s a short term goal because you probably will be able to get that sense of completion, success, or satisfaction from it more quickly and feel like you’re making progress in some form.

      Thanks, Keith, for sharing this and getting me to think about my own tendencies. And thank you Sarah for another insightful, actionable post! I have a related suggestion – creating a “first aid kit” each year. I got this idea from Susannah Conway a few years ago, and basically you just brainstorm a long list of things that will sustain you during your challenging moments, and refer back to it. Simple as a hot cup of tea or a walk in the park – but sometimes when you’re feeling down you forget what it is that helps you feel better, so the list is super handy! 🙂

  8. Ailsa

    I love this, particularly Diversify Your Identity. It’s all ringibg a little too true atm though!

  9. Ashley

    This is exactly what I needed to read today! I do feel better about those little rejections in life when I feel like it’s not a rejection of my entire identity. Sometimes I need the reminder to diversify.

  10. Ffion

    Amazing post!

    Diversify your identity is a big one for me, I had a karate club I loved that involved so many aspects of my happiness, a mentor and amazing trainer who pushed and challenged me, a social surrounding, routine, growth, physical fitness and health and when that fell away I was absolutely heart-broken because such a big part of my life that helped fuel the rest of my life as well was ripped out. I have since been unable to find a club with the same sort of atmosphere or high standard of training. I still have moments of heartbreak where I wish so much that I could have all that back, but things and people have moved on, and it’s just not to be. Since then I’ve tried not to have just one thing that makes me happy, but it’s been a long journey, and it’s still in progress.

    Great reminder!

  11. Charise

    DIversifying your interests/identity – yes, yes, yes! I am currently wrapping up a divorce. I think I was able to weather the separation (which was TERRIBLE and HARD, I am not down playing it!) better than my ex, because I had lots more going on outside of just our relationship + work, between my hobbies and volunteering and gym habit and stronger friend network.

  12. Danielle

    This is an amazing post and I resonate with that last bit so much. I had put so much of my identity into being “A COLLEGE STUDENT” that when I graduated two years ago I was a freaking disaster. So now I have subconsciously diversified my identity into a customer service rep, Spinning instructor, dance teacher, wanna-be blogger, and wanna-be runner. Haha! But it’s so so so important!

  13. Courtney

    I love the idea of banking happiness and I’ll be using it from now on! So Thank You! I can just see myself in the middle of a happy moment realizing how happy I am and taking a snapshot in my brain to be stored in my happiness memory vault to be pulled out again later, when I really need it 🙂

    Diversifying my Identity is very important to me right now. Also realizing that the Identity I always had wasn’t making me happy. We recently made a HUGE life change and moved out of our 1500 sqft house into a 30ft Airstream, in preparation of our soon-to-be life of travel. We’re also becoming early retirees next year by quitting our jobs. I’ve defined myself as my job for many years. It’s time to change that. I am so many things and I’ve come to realize my job was just a small part of that. Thanks again!

  14. ZJ Thorne

    Memories that you can turn to in hard times are definitely my favorite way to bank happiness. I have a vivid imagination, and can remember precisely what it felt like the first time I kissed my girlfriend. When we walk over that spot in our city, I can feel the magic.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      That’s so sweet!

  15. Michelle @ These Two Things

    Great article! My three non negotiable are the same. And I completely agree that happiness can and should be banked.

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