Youth Culture Window

The Recession’s Unlikely Silver Lining

In the face of an economy sputtering on fumes—if not completely out of gas—every now and then you come upon silver linings amid cloud-engulfed Wall Street and Main Street.

For a while the best news was that families—unburdened from the habit of shopping at will—have been spending more time together in the pursuit of simpler, and often free, enjoyment.

Now this: Consumers’ adjusted spending habits may outlive the recession, some analysts say, because in the process of being stingier with our wallets, we’ve come up against something along the way that perhaps no one anticipated: We discovered (or maybe rediscovered) what truly makes us happy and fulfilled.

New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses, according to a recent New York Times article.

Retailers and analysts, the Times notes, say that consumers have gravitated more toward experiences than possessions over the last few years, choosing to spend spillover money for nights at home with family, watching movies and playing games—and even for that endearing new concept…staycations.Many experts believe this is no fad, but rather “the new normal.”

“I think many of these changes are permanent changes,” Jennifer Black—a researcher and member of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors in Oregon—told the Times. “I think people are realizing they don’t need what they had. They’re more interested in creating memories.”

What’s more, if we collectively make this new spending trend a permanent reality, the whole marketing machine may follow suit—which could mean that instead of your kids getting bombarded with little else but commercials insisting they buy the latest gadgets, et al., they could also get a smattering of ads that herald the virtues of simpler fun, hanging out at home and with family, and less tangible “experiences.”

“There’s been an emotional rebirth connected to acquiring things that’s really come out of this recession,” Wendy Liebmann, chief executive of WSL Strategic Retail (a marketing consulting firm that works with manufacturers and retailers), told the Times. “We hear people talking about the desire not to lose that — that connection, the moment, the family, the experience.”

“Experiences” Trumping “Stuff”
In 2008, renowned political pollster John Zogby wrote a prescient book, The Way We’ll Be: The Transformation of the American Dream in which he rolls out his “secular spiritualism” observation—that more and more people have been associating the American Dream with less cluttered and materialistic lives and more spiritually fulfilling lives. “I am not talking of spiritualism in just a religious sense,” he clarifies in one of his recent Forbes columns, “but rather a broader wish for a simpler life that includes hobbies, volunteering and, perhaps most important, finding that elusive ‘quality time’ with family and friends.”

Indeed, one major research finding, according to the Times, is that spending money for less-tangible (or even intangible) experiences such as heading to the movies, taking a pottery class, going camping, or having coffee with a trusted friend produces longer-lasting fulfillment than spending money on plain old…stuff.

One is that we can reminisce about the latter experiences—even when the experiences don’t turn out to be 100-percent positive. In other words, we typically prop up that retreat (if you’re a youth worker) or that family road trip (if you’re a mom or dad) with your kids—you know the one featuring a clogged toilet, a flat tire, and really bad fast food and backseat fighting?—a large dose of “rosy recollection,” Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, told the Times.

The Loss of Anticipation
It used to be that in order to buy something special, you had to consistently save your extra cash and work just a little bit harder before finally getting to pay for it. But in our era of the runaway credit card and Internet shopping, you can purchase whatever shiny new object that strikes your fancy mere seconds after your fancy’s been struck.

Clearly that’s among the top reasons why debt is so pervasive in America, but it’s also led to a widespread loss of richer shopping experiences, Liebmann (of WSL Strategic Retail) said. In fact, the Times notes, scholars have found that anticipation increases happiness.

The Loss of Community
It used to be that shopping—in addition to being the vehicle by which we consume—gave us a chance to connect socially. But since 2000, retail became all about one thing and one thing only: Unbridled acquisition, the Times notes. So the appeal of the “warehouse”-style store that sells stuff in bulk for less money grew over time—and it’s obvious that online shopping did away altogether with the need for human interaction.

Does More Money = More Happiness?
If you’re given to buy the next coolest thing (read: before anybody else has it), chances are you’ve trapped yourself in the one-upmanship cycle. In other words, if your neighbors just bought a fancy new car, then—bingo!—now you want one, too, scholars told the Times. And watch out! A study published in June in Psychological Science found that having a bevy of disposable wealth gets in the way of our ability to savor positive emotions and experiences. Why? Because having a wad of cash inhibits our ability to reap enjoyment from life’s smaller everyday pleasures.

Jonathan McKee blogged about this subject recently on The Source site, noting that researchers found most people are quick to relate “happiness” to how well off they were financially—but when they dug deeper, asking questions about laugher and enjoyment in life, money had a lot less to do with happiness.

What about the Church?
While John Zogby sees swaths of Americans moving steadily toward simpler living, David Platt clearly isn’t looking in his direction. That’s because Platt is looking at an evangelical church seemingly stuck in corporate overdrive, with the bottom line and building projects and spreadsheets and numbers, numbers, numbers dominating conversations around the Starbucks stands ensconced in narthexes all across the nation.

Once dubbed the “youngest megachurch pastor in history” and now bestselling author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, Platt chides evangelicals—especially those of the megachurch variety—for their opulence and misplaced focus, both within and without the sanctuary.

Platt notes in Radical (released only four months ago) that “…we are starting to redefine Christianity. We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with. A nice, middle-class, American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn’t mind materialism and who would never call us to give away everything we have…A Jesus who brings us comfort and prosperity as we live out our spin on the American Dream.” Jesus, he writes, created a minichurch, not a megachurch. Worst of all, Platt points out, all of this may signal a badly misplaced object of our affection: “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshiping ourselves.” (13)

Instead Platt wants Christians to limit what they spend money on. Live as if we had less money, then donate the excess to charity. Give of ourselves—especially our time. Live among the poor. And, yes, share the gospel.

And when we do, we just might get what our hearts truly desire (i.e., closer relationships, especially with Jesus) even if our hearts are so tattered and worn down to get the signal to our brains.

What Else Can We Do?
Youth workers need to find ways to greatly increase the number of (and quality of) memory-making experiences for teens—the less-tangible, the better; the more meaningful, the better. Parents need to do the same, although your task is harder because you control your purchasing power where youth workers are restricted to tight budgets—in other words, if you want to max out your credit card for the next incarnation of Wii, no one can stop you.

In addition, teens aren’t expecting “stuff” from their youth workers—but they are campaigning at home for the newest this or that with their parents. So, if you’re a parent, your harder task is to redirect your wallet away from the easy (in the short term) fix and go about showing your teens that “stuff” ain’t all that.

Finally, both youth workers and parents need to teach teens about these new spending trends and what research has since figured out—that more “stuff” won’t get them more happiness or fulfillment. Quiz them about their own memories of positive experiences over the years—especially if their closets-full of “stuff” can even hold a candle to a great trip, a significant conversation, a night when they laughed ’til they almost puked, or that awesome concert or sporting event they were lucky enough to be a part of.

It just may pay dividends that outlast the almighty dollar.

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Dave Urbanski

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