Money struggles, debt, unemployment—these can plunge you lower than the subterranean homesick economy of 2008. Many studies have shown the strong links between job loss, fiscal stresses and rates of clinical depression, but we hardly need funded experiments to recognize how wobbly finances can unhinge our general well-being.
It takes energy and strength to clamber out of the gulches where patchy employment, debt or other economic shit-storms land you. Problem is, the longer the setbacks continue, the more they can swamp you in the Slough of Despond. It’s tough to hold onto resilience when the resumes return no signal from cyberspace, when the debts reach alpine dimensions, when collection agencies are on your trail like Nimrod’s hounds.
But there are ways to keep a grip on hope amidst bankroll apocalypse, ways to wring contentment from humble budgets. These ain’t exactly new problems, even if they’re new for you. Humans have been talking and writing about economic despair for millennia. Back in the Life of Brian ages, one brush-faced, wised-up dude from a Middle East backwater said the poor would always be with us, and so far he seems to be right.
These days, sadly, some Americans deride the poor and even the lower middle class, viewing their troubles as a consequence of laziness, unwise choices, and undue dependence on government. Doubtless some people are poor for such reasons. But plenty are impoverished or close to it despite years of hustle and horse sense.
Paul Krugman observed in a recent column that “there are evidently a lot of wealthy people in America who consider anyone who isn’t wealthy a loser.” But it’s not only McMansion mandarins who disparage the working poor; many middle-class folks also look down on those who are struggling. In such a climate, economic hardships can bring a painful sense of shame, even if they didn’t arise from a crappy work ethic or bad decisions.
So on top of the stresses a subsistence income slams you with, you start hammering yourself for some character defect the culture, like Job’s unhelpful friends, tells you must have landed you here.
Maybe you did make some lame-brained decisions, like taking a mortgage you couldn’t afford. Maybe the blandishments of Madison Avenue enchanted you more than the wisdom of moderation, and your hog-wild first-cabin spending landed you in steerage. If fiscal recklessness contributed to your reversals, try acknowledging them as valuable correctives. Here’s what the Stoic philosopher Seneca has to say about the uses of such adversity:
When the mind defies instruction and cannot by gentler means be brought back to health, why should it not be to its advantage to be treated with a dose of poverty and reversal of fortune?
Okay, Seneca was a blunt dude, contrarian for his time, pugnacious for ours. It’s tough to swallow the notion that bankruptcy could have medicinal effects. Chapter 11 is homework we’d all like to skip. And yet there’s plenty of evidence for the utility of such hardboiled stoic counsel.
For one thing, financial troubles can teach us the value of thrift and detachment. Thrift has traditionally been considered a virtue. Plain and retiring as virtues go, it can still serve as a compelling counterweight to American excesses. Materialism makes us competitive about things that don’t matter, and if we’re not careful it can drown us in red ink.
Conspicuous consumption skips the light fandango in First-World playgrounds. It’s a chichi charade whose aping of happiness deceives us all at one time or another. Thrift is different. It sidles from the spotlight, serene and self-contained, measuring out its heft of wisdom.
At one time the word thrift referred to the condition of thriving—it was synonymous with prosperity. And true thrift can lead to prosperity for both the hearth and the heart.
Thrift reins in your material desires by exposing them for the hoodwinking neon signs they are. Start paying attention to hedonic adaptation as it works in your life, and you’ll see how rapidly the psychic returns of each new carousel ring or corner office diminish. Even the most palatial digs, the most opulent ride, the most wizardly new iGizmo, offers gratification only slightly less ephemeral than a butterfly’s fart.
Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky has found plenty of empirical evidence that we can be happy with less lucre and fewer possessions than we might think. She outlines recent findings in her new book:
We can all apply the principles of thrift in order to spend less while enjoying more, [ensuring] that limited wages don’t wholly undermine our happiness. What’s more, thrifty behavior in and of itself can make us feel good (by highlighting our better natures), impart a sense of control (by highlighting our abilities to manage our finances), and even foster success. For example, studies have shown that children who have the capacity to delay gratification (a critical feature of thrift) grow up to receive superior teacher evaluations, score higher on college entrance exams, get accepted into better colleges, are less likely to become bullies as adolescents and less likely to have drug problems as adults.
To clear the space for joy even in straitened circumstances, Lyubomirsky advises those who are in debt to reduce or eliminate it right quick. Citing a landmark study that shows how bad events have a stronger and more durable emotional impact on us than good events, she argues that dispelling the pall debt casts over us is the most powerful way to start to feel better about our financial lives.
According to a Yiddish proverb, interest on debt is one of the few things that grows without rain. These weeds can choke your emotional ecosystem like creeping carnivorous flora. You want to spend a few bucks on dinner and a movie, watch out—debt’s spiny tendrils will snake up and throttle your pleasure with thorny self-reproach.
As one wise blogger has put it, your debt is an emergency, at least as far as your happiness goes.
It sucks to have champagne tastes on a beer budget, but you don’t have to drag ass emotionally as you tighten your belt. And sane frugality won’t make you a simpering, nickel-nursing tightwad. Your enjoyment will be kickier when it’s not tugged down by the deadweight of debt-spurred guilt. That same blogger, Mr. Money Moustache, has crafted a treasure-house of witty, whip-smart advice about scaling down spending without slinging your spirits low. He shows how pitching a frugal tent can actually sweeten the fruits of contentment.
Sonja Lyubomirsky also offers great suggestions about how we can squeeze happiness out of modest spending. She draws heavily on one study entitled If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right. This paper, whose authors include Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, offers brass-tack principles for living a low-budget yet high-spirited life. Here are the top three:
- Spend money on experiences rather than things. We’re measurably happier when we’re engaged in experiences we enjoy than when we’re contemplating a luxury purchase—even a recent one. We adapt quickly to the beautiful things we’d been coveting, so their hedonic returns shrink fast. The authors describe how, “after devoting days to selecting the perfect hardwood to install in a new condo, homebuyers find that their once beloved Brazilian cherry floor becomes nothing more than the unnoticed ground beneath their feet.” Experiences, on the other hand, bring deep satisfaction while they’re happening, then continue to pay off for years in gratifying reminiscence. Such experiences don’t have to cost much. A modest vacation, even a day-trip hike with toothsome chow on a checkered blanket can yield more kicks and flashback grins than that blingy status symbol you’ve been hankering after.
- Help others instead of yourself. We often assume spending money on ourselves will make us happier than spending on others. Turns out we’re backing the wrong horse. Personal spending has only a fleeting fly-speck impact on how we feel. But since humans, even the introverted ones, belong to the most hyper-social species on earth, “almost anything we do to improve our connection with others tends to improve our happiness as well.” Researchers at the University of British Columbia approached people on campus, “handed them a $5 or $20 bill, and then randomly assigned them to spend the money on themselves or on others by the end of the day. When participants were contacted that evening, individuals who had spent their windfall on others were happier than those who had spent the money on themselves.” Even if you’re stretched bird-leg thin right now, you can probably afford $5 or $10 of big-hearted giving. Charity Navigator is a great place to search for fly-right organizations on your wavelength. Remember this ain’t no Scroogey zero-sum game—you erase distinctions between selfish and selfless when you hike your mood by helping others.
- Buy many small pleasures instead of few big ones. Gilbert and his co-authors cite several studies that show how, “across many different domains, happiness is more positively associated with the frequency than the intensity of people’s positive affective experiences.” In one inventive experiment, participants were asked to sit in a chair equipped with a massage cushion. The first group received an unbroken massage that lasted 180 seconds. The other group got two 60-second massages with a 20-second break in between. The results? “Compared to participants who experienced one longer massage, those who experienced two briefer massages (interrupted by a break) found the overall experience more pleasurable and were willing to pay about twice as much to purchase the massage cushion.” These subjects had all predicted they’d snare more pleasure from a single continuous massage than from two shorter massages with a break in between—but they’d been wrong. The problem with the larger, longer-lasting pleasures is that we adapt to them rapidly, so our fun quotient takes a dive. Researchers suggest we’ll be happier if we “segregate” pleasures, introducing “a temporal discontinuity that ameliorates the effects of adaptation.” So if you can’t afford those high-end kicks and highbrow swag, take heart. These studies show how, if you want more sustainable happiness, “it may be better to indulge in a variety of frequent, small pleasures—double lattes, uptown pedicures, and high thread-count socks—rather than pouring money into large purchases, such as sports cars, dream vacations, and front-row concert tickets.”
Try these tacks. Shoot for memorable experiences rather than glitzy thingamarees. Raise your emotional altitude with altruistic chip-ins. String modest pleasures strategically along the loops of your weeks and months.
Probably the most reliable way to jack up your happiness is that old, deceptively simple trick of being thankful, even in hardscrabble circumstances. Practice shifting your focus from privation to the good stuff in your life that setbacks have whipsawed you into discounting.
One great evocation of healing gratitude comes at the end of John Cheever’s story “Pot of Gold,” which chronicles the decade-long series of financial and career heartbreaks endured by hapless New Yorkers Ralph and Laura Whittemore. Defeated by the latest in this crescendoing course of crushed dreams, Laura sits disconsolate in her nightgown and muses that the dream job she and Ralph hoped he’d snared “did look like the treasure” they’d been hunting for years. Just at the moment we think Ralph might be finally, irretrievably swamped by despair, he instead reflects calmly on Laura’s remark:
The word surprised him, and for a moment he saw the chimera, the pot of gold, the fleece, the treasure buried in the faint lights of a rainbow, and the primitivism of his hunt struck him. Armed with a sharp spade and a homemade divining rod, he had climbed over hill and dale, through droughts and rain squalls, digging wherever the maps he had drawn himself promised gold. Six paces east of the dead pine, five panels in from the library door, underneath the creaking step, in the roots of the pear tree, beneath the grape arbor lay the bean pot full of doubloons and bullion.
Because he’s accepted his latest misfortune with equanimity, Ralph is open to what rises in him next. It starts as simple desire for his wife. The surprise of sexual frisson at this moment is nice enough, but then he’s overcome with larger, more far-reaching feelings, and joy—in the form of luminous gratitude—finally dawns on this painful story:
Her smile, her naked shoulder had begun to trouble the indecipherable shapes and symbols that are the touchstones of desire, and the light from the lamp seemed to brighten and give off heat and shed that unaccountable complacency, that benevolence, that the spring sunlight brings to all kinds of fatigue and despair. Desire for her delighted and confused him. Here it was, here it all was, and the shine of the gold seemed to him then to be all around her arms.