The recession is increasing our happiness.

Yes, there are awful stories out there about how people have lost their jobs.  And there are exceptions to any rule — some people can no longer meet Maslow’s basic needs because of the recessison.  This post isn’t about them.  This post is about the majority of people who are still well-enough off, and are simply having to readjust their lifestyles.  For these people, the recession has forced them to spend consciously instead of spending more — and they’re happier for it.

Before you get all up-in-arms about this, consider two things.  First, consider that behavior can successfully drive attitude, often more successfully than the reverse.  Second, the most e-mailed article of the New York Times is about the impact of how you spend versus how much you spend.  

Behavior Driving Attitude
Ramit Sethi, an awesome personal finance author and blogger, recently commented:

People often think attitudes –> behavior. In other words, you say to yourself, “I want to learn about personal finance” (attitude) and then you start learning and practicing personal finance (behavior). It’s true. That happens.    

But there’s also another way.    

Behavior –> attitude. In other words, if you start doing something, you’ll often say to yourself, “I could be doing anything…and I’m choosing this…so I must think it’s important.” And your attitude magically follows behavior. There’s a rich history of research on this, whether attribution theory or the famous TV/teeth test. I’ll write more about this later.

It’s not that hard to get at a high level.  But, if it helps, consider a recent example from my own life.  Before February, I spent an exorbitant amount of time on Facebook, Twitter and consuming relatively useless news.  Friends would actually comment (in real life) on how frequently I posted on Facebook.  So, inspired by a book I was reading, I had a Media Blackout for a week — no social networks, no news sites, no newspapers or magazines.  I actually continued my Blackout beyond the week, simply because I enjoyed not being hyper-connected.  (I also read three books in ten days.)  

When I eased back into the world of social networks and online news, they were less important to me and I spent less time on them.  After I cut social media out of my life and spent time on other things (behavior), I found that those other things were actually more important (attitude).  To this day, I’m not as rampant on Facebook and Twitter as I was before.  My forced change of behavior drove a new attitude.    

The Popular New York Times Article
 This past Saturday, the New York Times had an article entitled “But Will It Make You Happy?“, which looks at how consumers are happier when they spend consciously instead of simply spending more.  It’s been the most e-mailed article on the NYT website for a few days running.  

Three interesting points from the article:

1)  Spending money on experiences brings more happiness than material counterparts (ie. “concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel room in Monaco”).  This is because experiences enhance social bonds, and many studies have shown that happiness is grounded in relationships.

2)  Anticipation of buying something increases your happiness after purchasing it.  As the article states, “waiting for something and working hard to get it made it feel more valuable and more stimulating.”

3)  Whenever we buy something material we experience hedonic adaptation, which is “a phenomenon in which people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness.”  Of course, this doesn’t apply if you haven’t hit Maslow’s basic needs.  But once you get to a point where you are buying new gadgets, hedonic adaption applies.  The gadgets are going to be awesome immediately, but won’t likely affect your long-term happiness.  You’ll quickly adapt to the new gadget, and you’re going to want another one to sate your hedonic adaptation of the first.  But since we’re in a recession, most of us can no longer keep buying new gadgets.

The recession is forcing us to spend less and spend wisely.  In other words, the recession is forcing new behavior.    

In lieu of buying able to buy more and more and more, the article points to how people are saving for quality products and spending more on experiences.  Saving for quality products increases anticipation, which increases happiness.  Prioritizing experiences over material things enhances relationships, which increases happiness.    

We may be forced into this behavior, but we’re finding that the resulting attitude about money is positively affecting our lives, so we embrace it.  This attitude likely even trickles to people that don’t have monetary constraints — it’s becoming socially accepted.

At some level then, the recession is causing many Americans to adopt a happier attitude.  

Have you found that you are spending more consciously recently — either spending less or spending on quality/experiences?  Let me know in the comments.

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