5 Ways to Be Happy in a Recession

Work on those relationships, be grateful, and don't forget to give to charity

By Kimberly Palmer
Posted February 10, 2009

Amid the torrent of academic studies coming out on the subject of happiness, one finding remains consistent and, well, unsurprising: We are happier in flush times than in down periods. And as a result of experiencing the deepest recession in decades, we are now a bunch of really unhappy campers.Research from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania shows that happiness measures go up and down with business cycles. A Reuters/Zogby poll in December found that people’s moods declined compared with November, with Americans reporting heightened concerns about job security and the direction of the country.

Really? No kidding. One might reasonably wonder why we need pollsters and Ph.D.s to tell us something so bleeding obvious. After all, performer Sophie Tucker reached a similar conclusion decades ago when she said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better.”

But the research turns out to be much more complicated than a simple correlation between money and happiness. It shows that our happiness may depend more on our relative wealth—how much money we have compared with our neighbors—than on any absolute scale. Researchers have also found that while richer countries are happier than poorer ones, they don’t necessarily get happier over time as they accumulate more wealth. (One possible reason is that expectations rise with incomes.) And while researchers once believed that after our basic needs are met, money matters less, they have now found it appears to continue adding to happiness. Other research indicates that excess materialism, on the other hand, can make us unhappy. ("Mo' money, mo' problems," as Notorious B.I.G. put it.) So both extremes can be emotionally taxing.

Just how money affects happiness is under debate. Do we really love our 50-inch television, or do we just like that we can afford it? Has the recession made us anxious over the prospect of losing our jobs, or are we down about the losses in our 401(k)’s? What’s really bringing us down?

“A simple way of thinking about an economic downturn is ‘We all can buy less stuff,’ ” says Justin Wolfers, associate professor of business and public policy at Wharton. “I think a bigger, more important part of the question is that work has a very central role in our lives. . . . When people are without work, they are much less happy, and not just because they can buy fewer iPods but because they value it for its own sake,” says Wolfers.

Those who find themselves down on their luck can call on the strategies developed by a cadre of happiness professionals. Here are five ways to boost your happiness right now:

  1. Take care of yourself: Get enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Gretchen Rubin, creator of the Happiness Project blog and author of the forthcoming book by the same name, has studied ancient texts as well as recent research on her quest to become happier. The first step, she says, is to take care of your own body by getting enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
  2. Become more charitable. “If you’re feeling impoverished...a way to counteract that feeling is to do something generous,” she says. It’s a way of convincing yourself that you have something to give, adds Rubin. Signing up to be an organ donor or giving blood are two easy (and free) options. People also feel happier amid an atmosphere of growth, says Rubin. If your salary is frozen, then learning Photoshop or building a garden can generate a feeling of personal growth.
  3. Spend more time and money on enjoyable activities, from traveling to cooking to studying Mandarin, suggests M.P. Dunleavey, author of Money Can Buy Happiness. Research shows that people are at their most satisfied when they feel engaged and challenged. For Dunleavey, that meant buying ice skates recently.
  4. Invest in relationships. Dunleavey also recommends investing in relationships, another positive influence on happiness levels. Buying a train ticket to visit a friend or putting $30 into a "romantic weekend away with hubby" fund can be valuable investments in your well-being, she says.
  5. Focus on what you're grateful for. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California–Riverside and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, suggests cultivating a sense of appreciation through something like a gratitude journal, where you write down three to five things for which you are thankful. If you lost your job, think of other dreams that have come true, such as living in the city you want or marrying the right partner. “It’s not trivializing what’s happening but trying not to focus on it all the time,” says Lyubomirsky.While the advice might sound obvious, Lyubomirsky points out that it’s also supported by empirical research—so we know it really works. But that Fab Four didn't need empirical research: "I don’t care too much for money. Money can't buy me love."

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