The inauguration gave some Americans a reason to revel for a couple of days, but overall, ours remains a sullen nation. If you haven't been laid off, you're probably working harder, maybe for less money--and almost certainly with less job security. People are anxious, depressed--and pissed. Which raises a question: Is there any way to use these emotions to help us pull through this mess?
Actually, yes. Over the past few years, psychologists and behavioral economists have been studying how emotions affect our decisions. You can make a good argument that complacent cheerfulness, in the form of blind faith in our credit cards and home values, got us into this situation. And there's evidence that certain so-called negative emotions can help us get out of it. In his new book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, esteemed psychologist Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, notes that we usually conceive of emotions as diseases: we say we are "mad with rage," for instance, or "sick with love." We think the ideal economic decision maker is an analytical automaton. But Keltner, who has made a career of studying the social effects of our emotions, says emotional behavior is sometimes just what we need.
In fact, the latest research points to a surprising emotional road map for helping us get out of the recession:
1. Be sad Sadness is terrible because, obviously, it hurts. But as a team of researchers pointed out last year in a study in the journal Psychological Science, sadness can stimulate something this economy badly needs: consumer spending. According to the Department of Commerce, just when the economy was tanking during the third quarter of last year, the personal-savings rate jumped to its highest level in nearly four years. In the long term, a higher savings rate will help prevent future credit meltdowns, but most economists agree that in the short term, we need to stop stuffing paychecks into mattresses. Being sad can help do this because, as the authors put it in the title of the Psychological Science paper, "misery is not miserly." People feeling depressed about their lives are more likely to spend than those who feel neutral.
In the experiment, some people were asked to watch the last few mawkish minutes of the 1979 film The Champ, which involves a dying boxer and his wailing boy. Others watched a dry nature clip. Subjects induced to feel sad were willing to spend significantly more money on a sporty insulated water bottle offered for purchase postviewing. "This void of loss people feel makes them want to fill it up with something," says Keltner--and often that means spending a little more for a luxury item. This doesn't mean you should take on a second mortgage, 2006-style, but it wouldn't hurt you or your local coffee roaster to splurge on a cappuccino now and then.
2. Be angry Anger is usually seen as a negative emotion, but it has at least one effect that would be useful in shortening the recession. Right now, lenders and ordinary consumers aren't risking enough. Entrepreneurs--even those with solid business ideas--can't get funding, so they can't hire, so the recession continues.