Recessions are not only depressing, they're downright boring. I don't mean to make light of the real financial hardship many Americans are facing. Unemployment is at 9.8%. One in every 492 homes received a foreclosure notice in November. Those are devastating figures. And even for those who are still employed, still making the rent or the mortgage payment, hard times are taking a psychic toll.
Even for the luckiest among us, living through an economic downturn feels a little bit like renting a high-performance car and having to drive it in first gear, or walking on proverbial eggshells while chatting with a cranky relative, or taking a stroll around the block with a sprained ankle.
Hard times, in other words, are a bore: They slow us down, reign us in, and otherwise keep us waiting anxiously for the other shoe to drop.
Back when this whole mess started in late 2007, a cadre of cultural critics trotted out their high-minded arguments about how a little belt-tightening would be good for our consumerist souls. They reckoned a recession would teach us to cling more firmly to our friends and loved ones as well as force us to rediscover the simple, wholesome, meaningful things in life.
Though that assessment may have made us feel better at the time, those critics were dead wrong. The gospel that money is somehow bad for your soul, to paraphrase Albert Camus, is little more than spiritual snobbery.
That said, it's true that a mature capitalist society has to have all sorts of cultural memes to remind the public just how dangerous excessive materialism can be. Without mantras like "love of money is the root of all evil" or religious dictums that teach us that it's better to give than receive, we'd probably devolve into a society of amoral money grubbers. (OK, OK, we'd devolve further into a society of amoral money grubbers. ) But the point is, because the scramble for dollars is the primary organizing principle of our society, we seek relief from the pressure by telling ourselves that money isn't as important as we actually think it is.
Over the past decade or so, social psychologists have conducted research that reinforces the folk wisdom that tells us money can't buy happiness. A 2010 study out of Princeton actually pinpoints a $75,000 annual income as a benchmark of happiness. The more an individual's income falls below that, the less happy he's likely to feel. But no matter how much more than $75,000 he makes a year, he's not likely to feel any deeper sense of daily contentment.
Unfortunately, what such studies don't measure is the happiness we derive from dreaming about that money and scheming about how to get it. For all of our complaints about the rat race, it turns out it can be fun. The marketplace is still the primary arena in which we realize our dreams.
Ironically, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was born into wealth, summed up the importance of the quest for money in our psyche better than anyone. He preached that "happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort."
By keeping us in idle and dampening our imaginations, recessions kill that thrill and diminish that joy. With less money flowing, fewer loans being given out and job openings scarce, we spend more energy trying merely to survive or to hang on to the gigs we have rather than devising plans to jump to more exciting ones. Particularly in a culture that prizes hope, change and reinvention, I can't imagine a predicament quite as enervating.
What's worse is that far from freeing us to think of weightier matters, this recession bogged us all down in myriad prognostications about the economic future and all the ups and down of the latest financial news.
It turns out we're more obsessed with money when there's less of it floating around. So much for discovering the "important things" in life.
The Great Recession and its aftermath have made the world a narrower, less interesting and less dynamic place. We're all hoping the economy improves in the new year. We need the money, but we also need the excitement of possibilities, the optimistic embrace of risk and the unknown to reenter our lives.