The Upside of an Economic Downturn?

By Fred Lee on 14 October 2008 23 comments
Photo: Steve Woods

Not that anyone would wish economic hardship on anybody, but can the case be made that there are in fact health benefits to an economic downturn? Well, the conclusion is not as simple as you might think, and the answers are surprisingly mixed. In a recent article in the New York Times , researchers found that there are in fact instances where lean economic times might actually have a positive impact on our health.

While it goes without saying that a flourishing economy goes a long way to improving our standard or living, it is interesting to note that there are instances where economic prosperity does not always translate into good health.

Take, for instance, the economic expansion of the past two decades. While we have witnessed unprecedented growth in the stock market along with an incredible accumulation of wealth, the population as a whole has also experienced skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

The reason for this seems to boil down to time, or lack thereof. When the economy is good, people seem to dedicate more of their lives to working hard at their jobs. In fact, in a previous post, Xin Lu wrote about a Japanese worker who actually worked himself to death!

While the desire to work hard and do a good job is completely understandable, it also means that less time is dedicated to the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle, which includes healthy eating, exercise, and regular check ups with your doctor. When times are good, people also tend to embrace unhealthy habits like excessive consumption of alcohol (especially before getting behind the wheel), as well as stress and anxiety that can come from trying to maintain a certain lifestyle, which also, in the modern era of consuming, can entail accruing debt.

Then, of course, there is the issue of spending quality time at home with friends and family, which I think is reasonable to say contributes positively to one’s health and brings up the need to distinguish between one’s standard of living and one’s quality of life. This is especially true in the case of raising children.

In fact, some of the data seems to point to the fact that children may actually benefit from the economy slowing down. The reason for this may be hard to nail down, but some theorize that it has to do with more time spent with either mom or dad (who may be unemployed as a result of a slowdown), and the healthy aspects of life that go along with it, i.e., healthy, home cooked meals from scratch, the comfort and peace of mind that come from being around the nuclear family.

It is important to note that for families that are hit harder by a downturn, the results might not be so bright and sunny. In other words, if a family cannot absorb the loss of income, then it doesn’t bode well for the children or the parents. It makes sense, since not only do they have less access to food and health care, but the stress might also compromise quality family time.

On the other hand, if the loss of income can be absorbed, then having a parent spending more time with their children surely can’t be a horrible thing. Sure, you can’t buy as many houses, cars or big screen TVs, but it begs the question, how much is enough? If you can keep a roof over your head, food on the table, and clothes on your back, then maybe the only way to slow down and spend more quality time with your family is to be forced to do it.

So during these difficult times, many of us may have to curb our spending habits. This could mean buying fewer extravagant and frivolous items, and even forsaking our daily latte. This, however, could go a long way in instilling us with a greater appreciation for the simpler things in life, like our famiy, friends, and health.

And maybe even that watered down cup of Yuban, which should be enjoyed in the company of loved ones… slowly.

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Linsey Knerl's picture

While it will definitely depend on the family, we have found these kinds of situations to almost always be a blessing in disguise.  Both times my husband was affected by layoffs, we had a chance to reconnect as a family, set new goals, and ultimately come up with a new solution for income (that was better than the way were doing things before.)  Self-employment was the final result of the last debaucle, and we are much happier as a result.  I only wish everyone had an equal opportunity have do this.

Linsey Knerl

Wise Bread

Guest's picture

I would think that you could actually prove that this could be linked to a person's psychological need to feel more successful. When it is hard to get a raise or to start a business, one may turn face toward their body in order to satisfy that need to feel like they are doing something productive and successful. What do you think?

Caleb (

Guest's picture

Love the idea of looking for the positive in down times. Definitely people are learning to be more frugal and, no doubt, that can and go a long way toward happiness in the long run! For me and my boyfriend, we are learning more and more how to cook and entertain ourselves at home. We used to be diehard restaurant goers, but my quitting my day job and blogging full time really forced us to adjust quickly to a much more strict budget. Heck, we hardly budgeted at all before! Now, we count every dollar (not quite to the counting every penny stage yet, but I see it coming) and it doesn't feel like deprivation or scarcity at all. It feels more like taking care of ourselves and being smart. And, that's a very good feeling that actually makes us feel proud! : )

Guest's picture

We all need balance in our lives. Sometimes, balance comes from within, other times, we need external stimulus. Most level headed people can take this opportunity to make a positive change. I definitely see some truth in your post. This economic turmoil is definitely the balance the global finance is seeing now. Its a great opportunity for those who are hard working and creative. Every problem is an opportunity.

Fred Lee's picture

Linsey, I am so with you on that one. I know so many young, successful families that work like dogs and never spend time together. Sure, they have a nice house, but they don't even know their own kids. As you mentioned, it depends on the family, but I'm believer that you'll never regret time spent with your family watching your kids grow. Regret over having lost that time because you were too busy working, however, has become a cliche in our culture.

Caleb, I think it's natural for people to want to feel successful, but somehow I think the key is finding your own definition of success. Not an easy thing to do.

And Shanei, kudos to your adaptability during these times. It's a great way to be together, however, and I've always found that eating out too often makes me feel awful, not to mention the fact that it makes you realize how much you really need.

Fred Lee's picture

I lived in NYC for almost ten years and was broke for all of it, but still had a hard time being frugal. There's just too much to do and too many ways to spend money. Having said that, however, I do believe that there are ways to enjoy the city on a shoestring budget. I sure did.

As for change, I think it can be scary, but often times good things can come from it, especially when you're not happy with your current situation. Like you said, sometimes we have to be forced into it, but for the most part, it's never as bad as it seems.

Guest's picture

Time is the most important asset we are given. Yet it's characteristics are so vastly different from anything else. I want to always have time for the people I love.

Guest's picture

Thanks for these balancing thoughts Fred.
When you're in the thick of things (financial meltdown) having someone bring balance to the context you're processing in is 'just what the doctor ordered!'
If we only thought 'on the other hand' more often then some of our extreme thought and behaviour would tone down.

Guest's picture

Thanks for emphasizing the positive side of things. Especially in the age of instant information and global access, it's easy to lose sight of the things that make us so very human.

Guest's picture

Most people don't realize that this might be the greatest time in history to invest your money. Everything is so low that if you invest now, you could possible make a huge amount of money down the road.

Guest's picture

While it goes without saying that a flourishing economy goes a long way to improving our standard or living, it is interesting to note that there are instances where economic prosperity does not always translate into good health.

I disagree with this premise. A flourishing economy does not improve the standard of living of unskilled workers who have stable jobs because there is little upside for them while their expenses will increase.

Flourishing economy --> job creation --> unemployed twentysomethings living with parents get a job --> newly employed twentysomethings move out of parents' home and rent their own housing --> household formation increases --> rental vacancy rates decline --> rents soar.

Guest's picture

Most people don't realize that this might be the greatest time in history to invest your money. Everything is so low that if you invest now, you could possible make a huge amount of money down the road.

Great! I will start investing my money as soon as I have some!

Guest's picture

Slowing down and reconnecting with family even in an economic boom is a good thing. It seems that we are all victims of circumstance and it takes something like this to make us spend time with family and friends. I wrote a post several weeks ago about about Hurricane Ike hitting Ohio. Long story short, several of my neighbors, myself included, were without power for almost a week. All the neighbors came together and I talked and spent more time with people (now friends) in the neighborhood than I had in the previous 10 years I had lived there.

Guest's picture
Mom of 6

In fatter economic times I was an all-organic vegan. Since my hubby's job was downsized, it's SAD (standard American diet) all the way for us now. I can't feed a family (yes, I do belong to a CSA and eat almost exclusively at home) a healthy diet as cheaply as I can feed a family BOGOs at Publix. Our health is suffering already and it's only been three months.

Guest's picture

Beans and grains/breads are the cheapest things going. What kinds of things are on the BOGO offer?

Guest's picture

In the recent past, it was the most "raw" materials that were the cheapest - that included food. So an economic downturn caused people to get back to less processed food.

Today, due to globalization and wage stagnation at the lowest wages, processed foods and "GMO" foods are cheaper than foods which resemble traditional foods. So burgers become cheaper than even non-meat foods.

Buying cheap "disposable" products can become cheaper, in the long run, than purchasing durable products, or making things yourself. Think about the last time someone has woven or sewn something and it cost less than buying something cheap off the rack?

This trend toward allowing companies to ship manufacturing off to countries with way lower wages has created this situation.

So, during this downturn, we might experience poorer health, and more anxiety.

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

Hey Everyone, thanks for your thoughts. I agree, these are tense times but call for a lot of thought and ingenuity, things we might not have called upon by simply maintaining the status quo.

To Mom and Wildgift, I understand that eating healty, organic and local foods is a more expensive proposition, and fatty processed and fast foods are cheaper. Each family situation is different. However, there is no denying that the reduction in work can lead to more time, though what sort of benefits or suffering arise from that depend on the circumstances.

I will say this-where we live, here in Vermont, the reduction in work time has resulted in an increasing number of people growing and raising their own food, which takes the one thing most busy professionals don't have - time. And it's hard to argue with the fact that being out in a garden with family and friends is a healthy pursuit. 

And it doesn't take much space to grow a reasonable amount of food, just a little creativity.

Guest's picture

Funny thing. I was just reading on a related story on Copyblogger on how the less fortunate tend to eat McDonald's, Burger King and such because those restaurants offer cheap, quick meals. I always find it tough to eating healthy and eating cheap at the same time.

Guest's picture

I think we have yet to see exactly how all of this is going to play out. I do agree with the commenter who pointed out that our current economy is a bit different than when we've experienced recessions and depressions in the past. Our culture is no longer agrarian; therefore, it is harder and often more expensive for people to produce their own foods and goods. On the other hand, even urban people found ways to be quite thrifty during WWII rationing. Plus, many planted gardens in small spaces. What can be done once can be one again.

Perhaps, our economy will change again so that once again people can eat healthier food, plus get the health benefits of gardening. I also hope that sewing will become more economical again, as I enjoy pretending that I can sew a straight seam.

At any rate, creativity and looking for the good side is always helpful. Thanks for your encouraging thoughts.

Maggie Wells's picture

We sat around my living room (yes, me the lefty with a giant Obama and no on Prop 8 sign in my front window with a room full of nice blue haired church ladies) and talked about how much we all seem to be barting now that the economy has tanked. We were trading yarn, apples, advice, an oil change, and computer repairs today. No money changed hands and we made a pact to look out for each other this winter--make sure everyone has wood, oil, and fresh foods.

And I agree with mom. It's WAY harder to eat healthily with no money because the best things for you--fruits and vegetables--are so expensive. It's a little cheaper if you eat with the seasons but not by much--unless you happen to have trees and gardens. NPR had a woman yesterday talking about raising chickens. We are considering that in spring.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

Very interesting... Good read!

Maybe you can help me out:

I'll send you a free report on Lessons Learned from the Great Depression, valued at $19.95, for filling out a 10 minute questionnaire about the current economic crisis.

Please click on the link below to fill out the questionnaire


Guest's picture

The last time I was truly able to lose weight was when we were in a situation requiring extreme frugality for about 6 months after my husband began his first job after graduate school. Ironically, he was earning the most he'd ever earned. But the unreimbursed part of the expense of moving cross country and setting up a new household, plus a major unexpected car repair the first week, and my being out of work longer than expected; emptied our savings took us to our credit card limits. (Not their limit on us, our limit for ourselves. Still, by the time I finally was earning properly, we had the equivalent of several months income owing.)

Our food budget was severely curtailed. Bulk oatmeal for breakfast, PBJ and apples for school lunches, and bulk beans and rice/tortillas for dinner. I found an ethnic grocery which offered real bargains on produce, and sometimes on meat. Dairy products were rationed by measured serving. Instead of filling our 12 oz glasses with milk, for instance, we actually measured out an 8 oz serving. Cheese was weighed, not just grated/cut enough to 'look right'. The sugar spoon was an actual half-teaspoon measuring spoon, and standards for sugaring cereal or tea were set.

Though we had variety of produce, and many different sorts of beans, overall, our menu was boringly limited compared to our usual habits. But, it had to be done.

There were days when I'd skip part or all of my lunch to have enough bread or apples to last through the week for school lunches. Or I'd very consciously serve measured portions at dinner, so that there would be another meal's worth of small portions leftover. Again, properly measured portions vs. a heaping pile. Not limiting the food, just not indulging. At the very least, I measured my portions this way most of the time. That's the part that made the weight loss difference I suppose. Well, that and having no in-between meal nibbles at all. At first I might have toast with PB, or fruit or leftovers or extra cereal for snacks, but then I became aware of getting as many school lunches out of the bag of bread as I could. Or as many breakfasts from the cereal as possible.

My girls were teens at this point, so I didn't feel that limiting portion sizes to the amounts described on 'the food pyramid' was asking too much of them. There was 'enough' food, and there was variety, even if it wasn't our preferred options. Apples were nobodies favorite fruit, and the cheapest variety even less so. But, they were the best buy and stored better than the soft fruits we prefer. Our budget was arranged to include more than enough dairy for their needs in that bone-building phase. But there was no longer chocolate milk powder.

I even began actually measuring the cat's food, instead of just filling her bowl. Her food wasn't refilled until she ate it all, rather than being replaced or topped up automatically. She has a habit of hoarding a last couple of bites that she will only get around to eating when nothing else appears. It adds up to about a bowlful each week I realized; which was almost a weeks worth of the measured amount she should have for her weight. Not wasting a quarter of the bag meant I could still by her a high quality brand. Stronger vigilance about scooping the litter box also, so that the litter lasted longer.

Guest's picture

Hi Fred, Great post! I wanted to let you know that we gave it some love in a BlogHer Productions video: Let me know if you have any questions! -- Julie Godar, Managing Editor,