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Jane Ahlin, Published August 15 2010

Ahlin: Uncertain economic times put a new spin on happiness

Remember all those sayings that began, “Happiness is …”? Charles Schulz started the trend in the early 1960s in his comic strip “Peanuts,” with the line, “Happiness is a warm puppy,” but it grew in scope until it was popular enough to be mocked and used ironically. (Think the Beatles’ “White Album” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”)

What resonated with folks was the simplicity of a happiness adage. Back then, everything about culture and society was complicated and decidedly unhappy, and yet, a phrase that began “happiness is” was the opposite, not only pleasant, but also reassuring. Forget the divisive Vietnam War and domestic hassles over civil rights and women’s rights; happiness didn’t have to be complex. Instead, it could be “a good book” or “a soft pillow” or “the smell of a rose.”

During a decade of utter social upheaval in the nation, we were relieved to find comfort in nice, unpretentious (albeit saccharine) definitions for happiness. Although the much-heralded “generation gap” put most World War II parents and their baby boomer offspring on opposite sides of the political spectrum, the urge for simplicity pulled on both. Even hippies, more inclined to “dropping out” and “letting it all hang out,” liked the simple stuff.

We’re into another era in which finding happiness through simplified living is a popular concept. This time, however, we aren’t fleeing social upheaval as much as we are guarding against bad economic times. Worried about money, we look for ways not to spend, and the best way not to spend is to give away or sell what we have and not buy more.

A recent article in The New York Times by Stephanie Rosenbloom about a young couple in Portland, Ore., underscores society’s new fondness for plain living. Granted, the young couple profiled in the piece took simplicity to the extreme; still, the desire to step off the “work-spend treadmill” strikes a sympathetic chord in most Americans.

Realizing they were not happy with the way they were living (paycheck to paycheck and $30,000 in debt) the couple became enamored with the idea of simplifying their lives. What started as a not-unusual decision to give away excess clothing grew to include ridding themselves of pots and pans and books. The young wife (Tammy Strobel) quit her job as a project manager for an investment firm in California to move to Oregon, where her young husband (Logan Smith) had gotten into graduate school. Once settled in Portland, they realized that the more possessions they got rid of, the better they felt. Soon, they sold their car, choosing instead to ride bikes, and finally, they parted with their television set.

Having pared down to a mere 100 possessions, including (for Strobel) “four plates, three pairs of shoes, and two pots,” they live in a sparsely furnished 400-square-foot apartment. Strobel, whose salary had been $40,000, now is self-employed as a Web designer and freelance writer making about $24,000. Still, the couple has paid off their $30,000 debt and managed to put away money. And they pronounce themselves much happier people.

One interesting point in Rosenbloom’s article concerned the research of a University of Wisonsin associate professor named Thomas DeLeire who looked at attitudes toward nine major categories of consumption. “The only category to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles.” In other words, much of what we spend gives us no pleasure. In fact, we’ve become a society spending more and enjoying it less. (One other point in the article delighted me: Ants and bees “construct social networks as complex as human beings”; however, “humans are the only ones who shop.”)

If Americans previously (mistakenly) accepted the notion that we can spend our way into happiness, we also understand the old saying “All the money in the world can’t buy a good night’s sleep.” Perhaps the moral in the profile of the young Portland couple is that happiness is not being controlled by our possessions.

In today’s world, “happiness is” lines probably are too simplistic to be meaningful, and yet, I have a favorite from the 1960s, an Albert Schweitzer quotation: “Happiness is nothing more than having good health and a bad memory.”

Ahlin is a weekly contributor to The Forum’s Sunday commentary page. E-mail janeahlin@yahoo.com