Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Can Our Health and Happiness abide Great Sacrifice?

A University of Nebraska Medical Center study suggests that improving levels of happiness or satisfaction with life also gives rise to better health in the future.*

The study indicates as we become happier and more satisfied with life, we tend to become healthier as well. Mohammad Siahpush, Ph.D., professor of health promotion, who led the study reports that those who expressed feeling happy and satisfied with their lives were more likely to have excellent, good or very good health three years later, as well as an absence of long-term and limiting health concerns and a better overall level of physical health.

This isn't surprising, but most of us heard President Obama affirm in his inaugural speech what so many of us are already know - we're facing rough waters and stormy times for years to come. "That we are in the midst of crisis is well understood," he said. "Our nation is at war ... our economy is weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices .... [T]he challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many." He then called upon us for shared sacrifice.

Does this mean we can expect to be less happy, less satisfied and less healthy in the years ahead? Can sacrifice and satisfaction co-exist in America? That depends on us, doesn't it?

Certainly if our happiness is tied to comfort, convenience, financial success, and material wealth we can expect some very unhappy and unhealthy folks in the foreseeable future. For nearly a century those are the very things the advertising industry has entrained us to believe are the path to happiness and satisfaction. (See Breaking the Over-Consumption Habit) So in this sense clearly the sacrifices have already begun.

We need only read the morning paper to know that's true. High school sports programs are being cancelled. The number of students accepted for college is down while tuition costs are up. Foreclosures and bankruptcies are on the rise. Hospitals and retail stores are closing. Millions in retirement funds have been lost. Over a half a million jobs have disappeared. States are running out of funds for unemployment benefits and cutting basic services. People are having to choose between food or fuel or medication. Some are living out of their cars, even in upscale communities like Santa Barbara, CA. Soup kitchen lines are growing longer with many once in the middle class. Social Security and Medicare are most certainly scheduled for cuts to elderly who are already barely covering their costs for food, shelter, and medical care.

For Americans who have been used to decades of prosperity such sacrifices are a bitter pill, especially for those who are already dealing with them. Few of us are feeling happy or satisfied about our current and projected circumstance. But can we feel happy and satisfied in it?

For the most part I'm not seeing a welcoming spirit of sacrifice as of yet. Though there are occasional news reports of workers willing to take pay cuts to prevent co-workers from being laid off, many Americans aren't ready to accept the sacrifices they're already coping with, let alone those ahead to which Obama alludes. Instead I see a lot of indignation.

Parents furious about cuts in school sports programs and 50-student classrooms. Neighbors outraged that people are camping out in cars and RV's on their neighborhood streets. Protests about cuts in public services. Workers demanding plants be kept open and benefits kept in place. Actors embroiled over whether to strike. ER doctors suing the government for decent reimbursement fees. Teachers demonstrating for teacher's pay over testing materials. Parents unbelieving that they must drive a long distance get their sick child to the hospital.

I believe we're seeing this general resistance to accept sacrifice when it touches our personal lives for two reasons:

1) a pervasive sense of entitlement on the one hand and
2) a profound sense of injustice on the other.

We've grown to expect an unending stream of the latest, best, fastest, most convenient, easy-to-use products and services of a quantity and quality beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined. But, as the reality of our economic and environmental challenges surge onward unabated, our sense of entitlement will inevitably erode. The question is, into what?

As far as a sense of injustice goes, that will be yet harder to accept. As I overheard one retiree comment, "Sacrifice? I've already sacrificed. I worked hard for 48 years and I paid out dearly needed income into Social Security and a 401k every one of those years so that I'd have some security. Now that I'm too old and sick from all the stress of working, 40% of my savings have disappeared at the hands of billionaires in failed financial institutions who are getting billions in bonuses that we're going to have to sacrifice in order to pay for! And now they have the nerve to talk about cutting back our piddly Social Security and Medicare payments !! Give me a break!"

There is no doubt the greed Obama also alluded to in his inaugural address has resulted in grave injustice to many middle-class and low income citizens. So, just how readily we will embrace the need to sacrifice and how satisfied we will be with our circumstance may well depend on how fairly distributed the sacrifices are and how evenly the suffering is spread.

But as psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his book Man's Search for Meaning, meaning, and I would say satisfaction and happiness, are not something bestowed upon us. They are something we must find within whatever our circumstances might be.

This past week I had a chance to be with people from two rapidly growing movements who are taking this observation to heart. They aren't defining the changes we face today as sacrifices, but as needed, albeit difficult and uncomfortable, adjustments or corrections in how we live to bring us back into alignment with a naturally sustainable way of life. (Again, see Breaking the Consumption Habit for more on what's involved in making this shift.)

Earlier in the week I took part in a Transition Initiatives workshop that I'm now certified to teach where people are learning how to organize their communities to shift from the perils of a vulnerable global marketplace to a resilient, sustainable local economy where individuals and families can thrive. Later in the week I led a group from our community on a field trip to the Quail Springs Permaculture Farm and Training Center, where they are using and teaching principles for how to work with nature's inherent abundance instead of using costly industrialized approaches to overcome the forcesof nature.

Both these groups recognize that while our troubled economy has provided us with vast material wealth, it is desvastating our health and well-being and that of the planet and threatening our survival. They don't downplay the seriousness of the problems we face, but they are nonetheless finding satisfaction and happiness in working to respond to these circumstances. Instead of seeing them as sources of sacrifice and suffering , they're focusing on:

1) holding a positive vision for alternative ways of living through collective community efforts
2) working to carry out this vision in their daily lives
3) expressing gratitude for whatever blessings each day brings.

These movements are unrelentingly realistic, they are simultaneously upbeat and enthusiastic. There are over 900 local community groups working on Transition Initiatives around the world and permaculture projects are underway in virtually every country world-wide. I invite you to explore what we in our local community are doing in our Let's Live Local Transition Initiative and check out the resources below to find out more about two movements, what they're doing, and how you might get involved in your community.

Do we want to view the years ahead as unsatisfying times of suffering and sacrifice that risk our health and well-being? Or do we want to find meaning in the difficulties we face and draw satisfaction from our efforts to respond to them? It's up to us.


Transition Initiatives:
You Tube Video - Transition USA Website -
Article: Five Transition Initiatives -

You Tube Video -
Web site -
Quail Springs Permaculture Farm and Training Center -

*To read more about this and other related studies on happiness and satisfaction see:

Happiness and Satisfaction Might Lead to Better Health (

Health Official: A little of what you fancy does you good (

Happiness protects against colds (

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008

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