A Merry Christmas

by Listener Archive / 27 December, 2008
Since when has genuine happiness been dependent on money?

It may be a very good idea this festive season for us all to put as much effort as we can towards having a merry Christmas because it's highly unlikely there will be a prosperous New Year. All the economic predictions in the run-up to Christmas have been much more dire than expected - even for those who, after a rollercoaster year like 2008, might have felt inured to financial shocks.

This Christmas may well be a more sober one than the last in every sense - and that in itself may do much more good than harm. Christmas has a reputation as being a time of excess - too much food, too much alcohol and too much expenditure, as though any or all of these are a sign of achievement.

They are not. The waistline, the hangover and the credit card debt will all have to be dealt with in time. They serve as reminders, which we mostly choose to ignore, that excess is neither a necessary nor desirable ingredient for happiness.

The economic hardships ahead need to be confronted with a calm, rational and practical approach - at a public policy level, by businesses and by families. When history plots this economic downturn on a graph, it is going to show that in December 2008 we were on a steep slide downwards. What needs to be remembered is that, at some time, that same graph will turn upwards again. Economic cycles fluctuate. The task is to try to sustain as little damage as possible while waiting for the lift to come.

Yet remaining confident is easier said than done when predictions are that a quarter of employers are planning a staff wage freeze in 2009, a fifth of all firms are not hiring and nearly another fifth are planning to reduce staff. Naturally, that pervades the thinking of almost all workers right now and has possibly already influenced the size and number of presents that will be around the Christmas tree this year. But since when has genuine happiness been dependant on the amount of money spent? Sure, almost all of us have the Lotto winner fantasy, but as everyone who has ever endured grief or loss or ill-health knows, that which we hold most precious rarely has a monetary value.

At a time when almost every news bulletin brings tidings of cuts, deficits, losses, decreases and falls, we know in our hearts that other things not only matter, but often matter more.

The satisfaction of a job well done, the goodwill boost of an act of kindness, the appreciation of effort someone has put in to make an occasion special - the economic downturn is an opportunity for all of us to truly appreciate those things that add so much to our sense of well-being.

Happiness, as a 20-year Harvard and University of California study just published in the British Medical Journal reveals, is contagious. If you're feeling happy, you can thank your friends and family. Happiness is infectious and can pass among people in a network. In fact, your environment doesn't have nearly the power that relationships do.

And there is still a great deal, even in an economic sense, to feel positive about when you live in New Zealand. Plainly unemployment is worsening, but no one is predicting joblessness will approach levels seen in the Great Depression. In fact, pundits are specifically rejecting any suggestion of this.

New Zealand remains better placed than some economies to ride out the downturn. We can even take the view that if the worldwide car manufacturing industry is toppling, thank goodness we lost ours years ago. And though New Zealanders have high levels of household indebtedness, our banking sector did not generally embrace the worst excesses of risky lending that characterised the US loans market. Plus, we produce high-quality food. We are not dependent on selling ridiculously over-priced designer brands.

And given that one of our few illegal immigrants is a distinctive-looking bloke from the North Pole who leaves promptly each year without needing to be deported, our international security, protected mostly by two oceans we do not have to pay for, remains the envy of the world. We can't see Russia from here and that's cool.

Christmas remains, this year as always, a good time to count our blessings. Let's wish one another - as the Listener wishes all its readers - a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

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