A Harvard professor’s 3 rules for being happy in a recession

The US economy shrank over the past two quarters, leading many to speculate that we may already be in a recession. But while the technical process of determining whether this constitutes a recession continues, one thing is certain. Anxiety about the economy is clearly already skyrocketing.

An analysis by developer marketplace Lemon.io found that Google searches for “will I lose my job in a recession” are up 9,900 percent. Searchers for “what to do when you are laid off” are up 336 percent. Entrepreneurs don’t have exactly the same concerns as employees, but many no doubt feel the same sense of impending doom.

Does a shrinking economy have to shrink your joy?

Does that mean the coming months are inevitably going to be unhappy? Does a shrinking economy always mean shrinking joy? Yes and no, says Harvard professor Arthur Brooks in his latest Atlantic Ocean column focused on the science of happiness.

There is no doubt that recessions affect the national mood, he allows. But that doesn’t mean that individuals can’t take effective steps to try to isolate themselves from at least some of the dark surroundings.

“The unhappiness that comes with recession is real, and you’re not irrational if you feel it. Your instincts may tell you to combat these bad feelings by focusing on the problem intensely and managing your affairs meticulously. But that’s actually not the best way to alleviate your suffering,” he writes.

If bailing out your bank balance isn’t the right answer, what is? Brooks offers three rules to give you the best chance of getting through the current financial turmoil with your happiness intact.

1. Stop checking.

Are there times of acute disruption when entrepreneurs must monitor your financial arrangements on an almost minute-by-minute basis? Yes, but these should be the very rare exception to the general rule of setting up sensible systems and putting them on autopilot.

“Make a sensible set of ground rules about spending, saving and investing. For example, make sure you automatically save 15 percent of your income every month if you can, and if possible, have a rule against carrying credit card balances. Invest your savings in a way that makes sense in the long run – get advice here if you need it. Don’t monitor your finances daily or weekly. Make a rule to look once a month (or once a quarter) at most,” advises Brooks.

2. Turn off the news.

Brooks is far from the only expert to argue that you don’t need to be glued to cable news or refresh your news website every 10 minutes to be a decently informed citizen in a democracy. A mountain of research shows that excess news consumption destroys your peace of mind.

“Information binge is a tempting way to try to eliminate the sense of uncertainty that our current economic moment can inspire. But consuming news and commentary about the economy can become compulsive, and it doesn’t help. I can assure you that the experts don’t know what which is going to happen either,” he insists before passing the law: “Cut news consumption down to 45 minutes or less, once a day. No cheating.”

3. Remember that you are not alone.

It’s easy to feel like a personal failure when you see your savings or the value of your home drop. But chances are your financial problems are shaped by larger forces beyond your control and widely shared. Brooks urges those stressing over their declining financial fortunes to remember that they are far from alone.

“In a general recession, we’re all in it together. You (probably) didn’t make a uniquely stupid investment decision against everyone else’s better judgment; you just got caught in a market downturn,” he writes. “Remember all the people who are losing money like you, but are in tougher circumstances – maybe they’re months away from retirement, or counting on their nest egg to buy a house this fall. Feel some sympathy.”

Looking for much more information on the science of how tough economic times affect our mood? Check out Brooks’ entire column.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.

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