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Economic Depression: Be Happy Anyway

"The pursuit of happiness." It's so American that it's in our Declaration of Independence, where it's listed alongside life and liberty as an inalienable right.

But how successful have we been in that pursuit? And now that the global finance system is imploding, how likely is it that we'll be happy in the coming months and years?

Can't Buy Love

Since roughly the 1970s, Americans have been buying things madly, whether we could afford them or not. We were promised that a bigger car, a more trendy purse, or a flat-screen television would bring us happiness, and we've been acting accordingly. We were promised that an ever-growing economy would make us all rich. But while our gross domestic product increased more or less steadily from the 1970s until the onset of the current financial crisis, most of us did not see a rise in our standard of living or our wellbeing. Wages stagnated, while the costs of basic needs-like homes, medical care, food, and energy-climbed rapidly. Those in the top 20 percent increased their net worth by 80 percent over the last 25 years, while the bottom 40 percent actually lost ground.

Few families today can make it on a single wage-earner's income, and a health problem or a job loss can send a middle-class family into poverty or even homelessness.

Yet we continue to buy the products that are supposed to make us happy, driving many of us deeply into debt. Families are carrying an average credit card debt of $5,100, with interest rates that often make payoff nearly impossible. In recent years, home equity reached record lows as people borrowed against the value of their homes. In 2004, the most recent year for which Federal Reserve figures are available, debt secured by real property exceeded $290,000 per household, almost three times what it was only 15 years before.

All this debt makes life more precarious. It also increases our dependence on long work hours, which-if we can find work at all-combines with long commutes to eat up the time we might otherwise have for things that research shows actually would make us happy.

It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that having more stuff will lead to happiness, because there's an element of truth in the advertiser's promise. We do need a certain amount of food to live, after all. Shelter is good. We need clothes, tools-a bit beyond the bare necessities can be nice. And having stuff has always been a way to show that you are successful and entitled to respect. But after the novelty of a new outfit or laptop wears off, we're left with a hole in our wallets and an empty feeling, which-advertisers tell us-we should fill by shopping for yet more new and improved stuff.

Following this advice may keep the corporate economy humming, but has it made us happy?

Many figures suggest the answer is: not really. Broad standards of wellbeing like the Genuine Progress Indicators show that our health, quality of life, economic security, and environment, taken together, stayed flat, although we worked harder. A 20-year study by the OECD found the United States has the highest rate of inequality and poverty among the developed countries, and the income gap has grown steadily since 2000. A recent Gallup poll found that just half of Americans live free of worries about money or health, compared to 83 percent of those in Denmark. When the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School studied rates of depression in 14 countries, the U.S. topped the list.

How Many Planets Does it Take?

It's not only Americans who are taking a hit from an economic system that puts money and growth ahead of real wellbeing. People around the world are losing access to their own natural resources and economic sovereignty.

Corporations seeking to profit by stimulating and feeding our appetite for stuff have trampled on the livelihood and ways of life of Mexican farmers, indigenous rainforest dwellers, African miners, and Thai factory workers. When land buyouts or subsidized agricultural imports make traditional lifeways impossible, many of these people arrive in crowded cities with no choice but to work for rock-bottom wages or attempt an arduous migration to a higher-wage country.

Champions of globalization like Thomas Friedman tell us that in a few generations these workers will have a standard of living similar to ours in the United States. But ecological footprint analysis shows it would take more than six Earths to give everyone in the world the level of consumption Americans "enjoy." Of course, we have only one planet, and this one is overheating. The Pursuit of Happiness Is this what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he substituted "the pursuit of happiness" for the phrase contained in the earlier Continental Congress draft, "life, liberty, and property?"

Jefferson's ideal was an economy based on small farmers who produced for themselves most of what they needed. Their happiness was not something they trusted corporations to provide for a fee, but rather something they created themselves, through their work and human relationships within a community. The economy of the time was founded, in part, on a slave-owning society built on land often stolen from native peoples, but Jefferson's ideals had a strong influence on the young country. Freedom, independence, and self-sufficiency were all popular values.

The U.S. has moved a long way from the Jeffersonian ideal. Today, we produce little of what we use. We exchange our work for money, and buy food, clothing, and other necessities from big box stores and purchase child care and elder care from corporate chains.

Since we no longer have the time, skills, extended families, and access to land that were commonplace just decades ago, we have become completely dependent on money. That dependency leaves us at the mercy of those who control the economy and the money supply. And those who accumulate the money have inordinate influence over our government. It is the precise opposite of the Jeffersonian ideal. It's also a departure from the way humans have lived for most of history.

Life After the Crash

So maybe it's just as well that the crisis is finally upon us. Maybe this time of creative destruction offers us the chance for a fresh start, a chance to build a society that puts ordinary people first and provides the conditions for their happiness.

After the shock of the crisis wears off, maybe we'll look around like characters in a Fellini movie who come outside at dawn after a debauched night of excess. We'll turn off the television, log off the internet, notice the bright colors of sunrise, and speak to the neighbors who we've never found time to meet.

We may spend less of our lives working as the cash economy shrinks and companies close their doors.

But maybe we'll learn to share the work and reclaim time for the aspects of our lives that research tells us contributes to real happiness-time with families and friends, civic involvement, exercise, creativity. It wouldn't be the first time. During the Great Depression, for instance, the Kellogg Company cut employee shifts from eight hours to six to extend the number who had jobs. Productivity went up so much that the company could afford to pay the same for the shorter shift. Meanwhile, civic organizations, adult education, and family life in Kalamazoo blossomed.

Maybe we'll find ways to trade among friends and neighbors-some winter squash or homemade pie for some child care or home repair. Maybe we'll reclaim the skills we used to have, and teach each other how to grow food, fix things ourselves, sew and knit, and pass skills along to our children and grandchildren.

Somehow, in the exuberance of the economic bubbles of the '80s, '90s, and '00s, we lost track of something. Money exists to serve us as a tool, not the other way around. Our lives and society do not have to be turned over to the rulers of high finance and their hired representatives in Washington, D.C. We the people can reject the economic orthodoxy that has served us so poorly, and rebuild our economy on a different foundation.


What sort of society do we want to rebuild? What will expand our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness without diminishing the chances for other people, now and in the future, to have the same?

Here are some of the things we'll need to do:

 * Economic policies for the future must assure that everyone is included, and that we lift up those at the bottom. When we allow inequality to burgeon in our society, we create crime and violence and hate, which damage everyone's ability to find happiness. We can no longer afford nine-figure paychecks for CEOs and double-digit returns on speculative investments. To paraphrase Gandhi, we have enough for everyone's needs, but not for everyone's greed.  * The environmental overshoot game is up. The next economy must function within the present production of our environment. We can no longer afford to live off the bounty of the past, like the millions of years of fossil deposits that make up today's diminishing oil reserves. Instead we must turn to solar energy, wind, and other renewables, and grow food and fiber by building the soil, not by dumping petroleum products on it. We can't continue to use our atmosphere, oceans, aquifers, and soils as dumps. No amount of "Runs for the Cure" will solve the cancer problem if we continue to poison our food, water, and air. And the climate is reaching a dangerous tipping point.  * We can no longer allow the money economy to grow like a cancer on our society, until it takes over all facets of life. The economy needs to serve people, communities, and the health of natural systems, not the other way around. Instead of relying on footloose unaccountable global corporations, we can turn to local and regional production to serve our needs and provide sustainable employment, including small and medium-sized businesses, co-ops, farmer's markets, and so on.  * As we do that, we'll get much clearer on real sources of happiness. Research tells us that the sources of the good life are in loving relationships, mutual respect, meaningful work, and gratitude, and as we discover the power of these qualities, the lure of advertising and materialism will no longer fool us. Overconsumption will take its place alongside other passing fads.

As we begin to relearn the skills and rebuild the relationships we lost in the pursuit of money and things, we will begin to find a happiness that we are in charge of; one that is not dependent on the fluctuations of the stock market or the amount of stuff we own.

Painful as it may be in the short term, we can emerge from this crisis healthier and wealthier, with the sort of wealth that really matters: strong communities and relationships with loved ones, healthy ecosystems, and the skills to make a living and enjoy life.

Sarah van Gelder & Doug Pibel wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor and Doug is managing editor of YES! Magazine.