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Gmar Chatimah Tovah 2008

It is a few hours shy of Yom Kippur, and we are preparing to humble ourselves, look introspectively at our self worth, and commit ourselves to a year of effort, good deeds and conduct, and hope for a prosperous time ahead.

Surprisingly it doesn’t happen that often, but I had a call for an “urgent” work item that came with a request to see if I could rearrange my leave.  There is no compromise associated with Jewish observance in the calendar, and there is no question that I would prioritise anything above my Jewish tradition, even at the cost of a commercial opportunity.  That is well understood and respected by my peers, so no problem there.  However I was reading a posting yesterday by an American author who criticised Jewish workers who opted for Shule on Rosh Hashana over their jobs as Government regulators to control the economy on a day of collapse.  The author went so far as to draw a comparison between the Yom Kippur war and Israeli’s fighting for existance, and the sharemarket collapse that required Jewish officers to fight for its existance.

It is fitting for Yom Kippur, in the face of further distress in the markets, that the article below appeared online today.   It provides just a little perspective about what is important, and what is not.

Wishing all our chevra a good fast.  May we all be sealed for a fulfilling, healthy and happy year ahead.

Prosperity may not be happiness key – By Tony Wellington

THE global economy appears to be teetering on the brink of collapse and the “D” word is being freely bandied about. The very idea of an economic depression has most people recoiling in horror.

The symbolic power of the word is entrenched in the images we have been fed: grey photos of forlorn and destitute people from the 1930s.

Histories of that era inevitably concentrate on the worst aspects of the disaster. But just how miserable was it really?

Challenging the orthodoxy is Australian historian and former academic David Potts.
In researching the Great Depression he gathered no less than 1200 first-hand interviews, as well as hundreds of transcripts of interviews held at the National Library of Australia, plus scores of autobiographies.

He presented his findings in a book, The Myth of the Great Depression.

It turns out that large numbers of those who experienced the 1930s Depression spoke about the time with great affection, claiming that the struggle gave their life meaning. Many even suggested people were happier then.

Potts doesn’t deny that some suffering occurred, but it wasn’t universal by any means. In any case, the research showed no long-term negative impacts on those who lived through the Depression.

Compared with the previous decade, the 1930s Depression saw unemployment leap threefold and bankruptcy double. Yet the overall health of the nation actually improved and malnutrition declined. What’s more, infant mortality, general death rates and suicide fell as the Depression deepened.

Financial and material scarcity appears not to have led to widespread suffering but rather to greater community interaction, increased egalitarianism, a heightened sense of purpose through resourcefulness and, most surprisingly, enhanced overall wellbeing.

As Potts notes, the folklore that has developed around the Great Depression reflects dominant values of our time. Put bluntly, the myths reinforce our modern obsession with material security and affluence as the primary sources of personal happiness.

What if continued economic growth is not the answer to wellbeing? Then the politicians and majority of economists have been so busy barking up the wrong tree they’ve failed to see the forest.

The modern emphasis on wealth and consumption must be challenged not just for the sake of our over-stressed planet, but perhaps also for our individual wellbeing. There is now a massive body of research demonstrating that increased wealth in Western nations has not generated increased overall wellbeing.

For example, the number of Americans telling the National Opinion Research Centre that they are very happy declined from 35 per cent in 1957 to 29 per cent by the end of the century.

In many industrialised countries mood disorders, depression, anxiety attacks and mental disease have tripled since World War II. We are also experiencing the health outcomes of a decadent lifestyle, with increases in obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

The way things are going, today’s youth may be the first modern generation not to outlive their parents.

Between June 2001 and June 2006 private sector wealth in Australia absolutely skyrocketed. According to Treasury figures this boon amounted to a real increase of $150,000 per Australian. Yet research by the Australian Centre on Quality of Life at Deakin University shows that the nation’s wellbeing was unaffected by this prosperity spike.

What does make our overall happiness shift are major events, but they don’t tend to follow expectations.

There was a sustained increase in the nation’s wellbeing following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Peaks also occurred after the two Bali bombings and also around the time of the Iraq war. As the researchers put it, while at first this may seem odd, it supports the well-documented phenomenon that people bond with others around them in times of threat. And bonding with each other is the stuff of happiness.

So maybe an economic catastrophe could be good for us? We might actually begin to shrug off the fervent messages urging us all to be selfish consumers. Then we could find more time to rediscover each other. Who knows, we might even improve our diet?

The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020 mental depression in Western countries will have become the second highest global burden of disability after heart disease. Now wouldn’t it be ironic if global economic depression staved off this portent?

Better a good life than a life full of goods.

Tony Wellington is the author of Happy? Exposing the Cultural Myths About Happiness.

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