I previously posted an article on an ABC 20/20 episode that compared the happiness levels of various countries and attempted to explain why these differences might exist. Among the conclusions was that more materialistic wealth doesn’t necessarily lead to more happiness.
This got me thinking about how economic recessions may–or may not–impact happiness levels. While many things are beyond our control, many things are within our control. Downturns can provide opportunity–not just for financial investing, but also for “life investing.” This requires proactive consideration of what’s really important to us, combined with the courage to define our investment goals.
Economic recessions can easily trigger insecurity and fear. Robert Arkin, a psychology researcher at Ohio State, previously found that insecurity about our futures can lead us to pursue more materialism, apparently in an attempt to ease our anxieties.
Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism, suggests that such pursuits have an adverse impact upon numerous areas of our lives–family well-being, general psychological health, the environment, and so on.
Michael Eysenck discusses people who are trapped on a “hedonic treadmill,” where we try to buy more and more to increase our happiness, but then need to work more and more to pay for our possessions. This leads to more discontent, which leads to more frivolous spending, as the treadmill spins faster and faster and faster.
The United States has some of the fastest-spinning hedonic treadmills, as previously discussed in books including Take Back Your Time and Work to Live. Labor statistics show that we are near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to vacation time and time spent with family, because we often are so busy pursuing the “American dream.” This may or may not correspond with our personal unfulfilled dreams!
Just one example of this is our ever-growing thirst for larger houses–which some would argue has been a core component of the economic downturn. U.S. Census data indicate that the amount of square footage of home space per U.S. person has nearly doubled over the several decades.
This means that each of us is paying for additional building materials and labor, additional energy to maintain the living space, additional infrastructure that goes along with connecting larger houses to the sewage and energy grids, and so on. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Thus, I was surprised when I read Linda Stern’s “Recession Handbook” in Newsweek. She outlines several topics including “Protect Your Job,” “Protect Your Portfolio,” “Protect Your Pocketbook,” and “Protect Your Psyche.” While several pieces of advice seem perfectly sensible, a few of the ideas a “New York headhunter” shared with her made me cringe: “Stay visibly busy…The first employees to go during a recession are the high-maintenance slackers. Come in early, leave late, eat lunch at your desk…” In other words, turn the insecurity-driven treadmill up three or four notches!
Now if you love what you’re doing, are currently in your dream job where work feels like play, and feel that your work isn’t already eating into the important things in your life, there may be nothing wrong with following Stern’s advice in moderation.
However, if you’re not in such a place, then you might utilize this opportunity to consider what’s really important to you in your life. Otherwise, you may find yourself miserably competing with co-workers to prove who’s the most devoted to the job, simply adding to the fear-driven downward spiral that perpetuates our overworked culture.
Fortunately, Stern also advises getting your resume out there if you’re ready for a change–of course, this is most helpful if you’ve already taken the time to clearly define the new life you wish to create.
These issues are nothing new; for years, thinkers in the voluntary simplicity movement have proposed solutions such as taking a much closer look at what we really value in life, and then getting rid of some of the unnecessary elements. We often find that we have a lot of things that cost us a great deal of our time and energy, but that add relatively little value to our lives.
One option we have during a time of recession is to be proactive and consider how to remove such “clutter” from our own lives. Where do we really want to be in the future? Can we live with just a little bit less, or can we get rid of a few things that will allow us to pursue something that will really add value to our lives? This could be time for a hobby, more weekends with family, pursuit of a childhood dream, and so on.
The other option, of course, is to be reactive from a place of fear, clinging desperately to what we have, without stepping back to consider whether it’s all really that valuable to us anyway.
If an economic recession has catalyzed some serious thinking for you, one of the best investments you can make is to balance your “life portfolio.” You’re likely to find it much more uplifting–and empowering–than mourning over recent retirement fund reports.
As you consider the dimensions of your life in the “Life Investment Portfolio Chart” below, consider the following:
- How much are you currently investing in each dimension?
- Are your time and energy investments diversified and balanced?
- Are any of the elements underperforming?
- Where would you like each dimension to be a year from now?
- Are you holding onto other things that are keeping you from investing in these areas?
- Most importantly, when do you wish to start?
While the NASDAQ may remain difficult to predict, life investing allows you to determine when the upswing begins.