How to Boost Your Spirits Without Spending a Dime

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The key is having frugal hobbies that can get you into a 'flow state'.

When we feel down, there's a tendency to throw ourselves into activities that cost money. Whether it's splurging on a fancy coffee and pastry on the way to work, buying a cute outfit on the way home, or shopping for new makeup, retail therapy feels great in the moment, but has a detrimental long-term effect. You end up with debt, a house full of stuff you don't really want, and – let's be honest – your mood probably isn't much improved by that.

A better approach is to establish free ways to boost your spirits – activities to which you can turn reliably and always know you'll come out feeling happier at the end without spending a cent. Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar says the secret is doing something that gets you into a 'flow state' (first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and that causes you to lose track of time. You'll resurface some time later, feeling rejuvenated and cheered.

I like this concept a lot, and it got me thinking about what I do when I need to get out of a funk without spending money. Obviously, some of these require an upfront purchase, but it's a fairly safe bet that most people have similar tools in their homes (i.e. a bicycle, a musical instrument, etc). Buying something that sets you up for indefinite entertainment and self-improvement at no added cost is a very different kind of expenditure than ongoing retail therapy.

My go-to 'flow state' activities are:

– Reading. Usually I do this in the evenings once kids are in bed. If I'm feeling really bummed about something, I usually opt for fiction, as it provides a pleasant escape from whatever's in my head. (Non-fiction is reserved for cheerful and more focused times.) All my books come from the library.

– Getting exercise. Whether it's going to the gym (where I've prepaid a year's membership at greatly reduced cost), hopping on my bike for a trail ride, or going for a walk in any kind of weather, I never cease to be amazed at how getting sweaty and spiking my heart rate simultaneously boosts my spirits. I start out feeling irritated at the world and finish with a positive outlook on life.

– Playing music. Whether I'm dusting off my violin to play some fiddle tunes or practicing guitar (a new project), making music on my own has a wonderfully relaxing effect. I always feel great after a solid practice session. Usually, I get so into it that I have to set a timer to remind me when time's up.

– Cooking. The more of a mental escape I need, the more elaborate the meal I prepare. Cooking is so practical with such useful results, and can be made to fit whatever experience a person needs – creative and exotic, or efficiently utilitarian.

These are examples of what I do, but everyone will have their own flow state activities. The key is being able to immerse yourself in it, engaging actively while losing track of time and place. (Watching TV doesn't count, as it's not active engagement.)

In an effort to consume less – both in terms of money and material goods – figure out what your own frugal flow state activities are, and turn to those whenever you're feeling down.