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When a box turtle is crossing the road and it hears a car coming, it reacts by drawing in its head and feet, contracting for protection. Evolution has kept turtles alive for hundreds of millions of years that way. What works as a natural defense isn’t much use, though, when a Yukon or Explorer is barreling toward you. There are times when contracting inward is the very worst thing you can do.
That’s true now in the recession that economists see barreling toward us — the road noise has gotten alarmingly loud already. But as the economy contracts, we must resist our natural reflex to contract with it. Instead, we need to do the opposite. Expansion is the best way to survive any crisis.
The lesson should have sunk in after 9/11, when the whole country learned what it means to contract with fear, anxiety, suspicion, and distrust. We felt threatened by a vast, unseen enemy, which was magnified as large as fear itself.
Fear deprives people of choice. Fear shrinks the world into isolated, defensive enclaves. Fear spirals out of control. Fear makes everyday life seem clouded over with danger.
A lot of people are approaching the economy that way, and not enough leaders are warning them that it’s the worst possible reaction.
To be happy in a recession means, first and foremost, resisting all the threats that fear possesses. Don’t obsess anxiously over what you could lose. Don’t reduce your world to a bank account or a 401k. Isn’t there an upside to losing some “consumer buying power”? To be honest, we went too far with consumerist mania. By any measure this is an inordinately rich country, and instead of mourning sagging profit margins, can’t we use the current slowdown to ask what makes for true personal happiness?
Relationship. Gratitude. Appreciation. Compassion. Mutual regard. Strong social connections. Love you can trust.
I don’t know why it takes a crisis to bring out those fundamental human qualities. But it often does. We all realize that the next video game, the next new car, the next flat-screen TV means nothing compared to the rewards of relating to other people. Yet we live as if the opposite is true. The pursuit of happiness is blocked just as much by indulgent over-consumption as by an economic downturn. More, in fact. An impoverished country like Nigeria recently scored number one in a survey of the happiest countries on earth, while the U.S. has never broken the top ten in any such survey.
Some may protest that expanding and becoming more human is all well and good if you have a job but totally unrealistic if your livelihood is threatened. I don’t think so. Whatever happens, the worst-off will be the ones who need more compassion, kindness, and relating to. They will need real coping skills, not a show of group pity.
There’s a lot more to say about how to be happy in a recession, but the main thing is to remind yourself that it’s possible. Refuse to contract just because the economy does. You have the tools to be happy in the worst of times. They’re just hidden under the box your new iPhone came in.