Rethinking Quality of Life

Originally posted on the Huffington Post.

This is the eighth in a series of 14 posts expanding on Salzman’s forecasts for 2013 in her annual trends report, a program of global communications group Havas Worldwide. This year’s book, What’s Next? What to Expect in 2013, was published on 12/12/12 and is available at Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and an internationally respected trendspotter.

The financial meltdown of 2007-08 and the limping economy since then have prompted a range of fascinating responses and repercussions.

Anger and outrage have fueled movements such as the Tea Party in the United States and the Occupy movement in many countries and maybe even contributed to the Arab Spring. Governments and millions of consumers have gone into austerity mode, reducing spending and trying to pay down debt. Companies have been cautiously building up cash reserves, most famously Apple with its $123 billion pile. On the opposite tack, entrepreneurs and go-getters have decided that a recession is an ideal time to start a business or to expand. Working people have hunkered down, reluctantly thinking that longer hours, less pay or unappealing jobs are preferable to being unemployed. Everybody has looked back at previous generations to see how they did (remember the Great Depression!) and at other countries to see how they’ve been doing.

The meltdown came as a massive shock, especially during Fall 2008. There was panic in the markets and fear in the air. Financial institutions stopped lending to one another, trade credit dried up and banks called in loans. Commentators said the financial system had suffered something akin to a heart attack and had to be put on life support. Even high-level officials said the world was looking into the abyss; The Economist’s Oct. 4, 2008, cover captured the feeling with the image of a figure looking over a cliff and the headline “World on the Edge.”

At the time, it was the nearest most people had come to collective disaster in peacetime. No wonder many people have had the sort of response that’s common after a near-death experience: They’ve looked back over their pre-crisis life and wondered about some of the things they were doing automatically and taking for granted.

Even before the crash, some people were uneasy about the way things were going. The increasing speed and complexity of life was spawning articles and books about simplifying, fears about climate change were galvanized by the 2006 movie An Inconvenient Truth, feelings of consumer overwhelm were validated by Barry Schwartz’s 2003 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. And when the worst came and homes were being repossessed, people were reminded of the classic George Carlin “Stuff” riff, in which he describes a house as “a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”

Now, more than four years on, the continuing tough times for many and widespread uncertainty are prompting variations on the questions: “Did we get it all wrong? What should we do differently?” If the old normal is not coming back, people are now taking the opportunity to revisit the wish list and see what’s possible—and maybe even better—with less money.

Creating Ports in the Storm
Life has gotten even faster since 1999, when James Gleick published his best-selling book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. We’ve become used to faster Internet, faster service and faster results, not least because waiting for anything now feels like a waste of precious time. It’s no accident that the classic sales pitch of “saving time” is still going strong for products and services from vacuum cleaners and ready-made meals to self-checkout at the supermarket and self check-in at the airport.

In the time that’s saved, we get extra capacity to pack in a few more compelling, engaging, must-do activities, especially with mobile devices that deliver on-the-go ways to fill that time: social media, email, news, games, movies and video clips. It all seems perfectly normal and logical and important until something happens to break the pattern, change the pace and create a different perspective: a vacation, illness, unemployment or maybe a life-changing insight from a book or a movie. Or a global economic crisis.

As people become more aware of their addiction to speed, we’re seeing the rise of interest in slower alternatives: slow cooking and eating, slow courtships, slow travel. All this ties in with mindfulness, currently part of the training at Google and sure to be coming to a company or community center near you soon.

A parallel, overlapping trend is the interest in simplifying life. The urge is not to buy things that make life quicker and more convenient; rather, it’s to make life less stressful and more satisfying. As a piece in O put it: “The mortgage crisis, the banking meltdown, the spike in gas prices and the unfettered baking of our atmosphere has led an unprecedented number of folks to put down the credit cards and start thinking about plan B.”

Whether it’s slowing down, simplifying, volunteering locally or getting interested in corporate social responsibility, it all comes down to some questions about life that have become sharper in these more uncertain times.

The fast-growing new field of positive psychology aims to provide some scientifically robust answer to the kicker question: What makes life most worth living? Before the crisis, that might have sounded like the sort of thing liberal arts undergraduates and art house aficionados discussed instead of getting on with “real life.” Now it seems like a pretty smart question. No matter what answer individuals will determine for themselves, those answers will share one requirement: better quality of life.

Now that normal life packs every moment with calls on attention, distraction and fast-paced entertainment, the quest in 2013 and beyond is for unstressed, unpressured, uncluttered space and time. To relax. And breathe.

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