We send an automated email to our clients quarterly. It’s not a scientific survey but a temperature check on how people are feeling about their finances and the world. We get a decent number of responses. There are only two brief questions:
- How do you feel about the financial markets?
- How are you feeling about your financial future?
The point of this is to give us some kind of reading on how people are feeling about themselves and the world around them. There are a few clients who always answer in the positive and a few who always are negative, but generally the answers usually reflect how the economy is doing overall. When the economic news is good, they normally answer positively about the markets. When the economic news is bad, they answer negatively.
However, lately that doesn’t seem to be the case. The news is mostly good. The answers are mostly bad. Why? Why are so many people down on the markets and an economy that has proved to be resilient and strong across the board these past few years? Why is everybody so darn anxious?
I have some theories:
When I was young, and even through my thirties, information was hard-earned. In order to know the news, a person needed to read the newspaper, read news magazines, or at least watch Dan Rather or Peter Jennings at 5:30 pm. CNN was pretty new and not a sophisticated news organization until at least the 90’s, so the 24-hour news cycle wasn’t a thing.
Nowadays, everybody knows about the wildfire in real time, we can watch the latest war in Europe from a front-row seat, and every politician’s thought, no matter how inane, comes across my phone within seconds. Sure, we have more information these days, but the sheer volume of it is oppressive. This much misery surely was happening in the world in decades past, but it didn’t hit me like a constant firehose all day long, every day. I think that although knowing so much suffering is happening in the world is the best way to think about ways to help stop it, knowing also puts us in a worse mood. Ignorance was bliss. Now we don’t have that excuse. We are bombarded with everything, all the time.
Loss of trust in institutions.
This has been a long-time in coming, but we are definitely in an era when previously-trusted institutions have lost the confidence of many Americans. I’m talking about churches, Congress, the Supreme Court, law enforcement, big businesses, higher education, and even libraries. (Really, libraries?) Some of this loss of trust has been well-earned, but some of it is because some groups have weaponized social media and technology against them. We live in a scorched-earth age of “whataboutism” where everybody must be “plotting” against everybody else. Without commenting on who is right and who is wrong, I will observe that when you constantly rail about secret plots and hidden agendas, it’s no wonder you are miserable. How can you see any joy in this world when you literally think everybody is out to get you and vast conspiracies of hundreds of people are around every corner?
Even though the statistics show that the economy is in pretty good shape, the distribution of economic benefits in our society skews toward the top. The economy may look great in the macro, but millions of people are feeling like things are not great for them. Even when you ask a person who is doing well, this person might know others are not as well off and has empathy for them. That empathy, while helpful, doesn’t make people happy. It makes them mad, frustrated, sad, and powerless.
Lack of Connection
There are researchers who study “happiness”, and a lot of the results of those studies tell us that, contrary to conventional wisdom, more money does not make people happier. What does make people happier are social connections to others. Even introverts are happier when they have good networks of other people. We are social creatures. Yet our modern society, fixated on the phones in our hands and our isolation in our homes with endless entertainment opportunities, have let our real social networks whither. We’ve devolved into electronic friend networks like Instagram and Facebook, where people curate their best selves for presentation to the world instead of genuine human interaction. As a result, we are “connected” to more people but we are less present for real human interaction. We may be less happy because we are less connected, not more.
While the economy hums along and our clients are doing well financially, there continues to be this sense that all is not great. I’m not ignorant to real problems, but by all measures we should be more confident that we seem to be. People are working. Wages are rising. Companies are making money. We overcame a crippling pandemic with miracle vaccines and an economy growing faster than the rest of the world, including China. We are feeling lost and mad because we aren’t connected to others in meaningful ways and our institutions are letting us down.
Yet the seeds to fix these problems are in our control.
Alone we can't instantly improve our broken political system, make economic prosperity more evenly-distributed, make institutions more trustworthy or even curb bad information. However, we CAN prioritize our relationships and interact with others more directly. We can work with others to wield political power and make our society more reflective of our values. We can decide together to change our institutions to act in ways that promote what we think is important.
We can visit with friends, in-person.
We can work WITH institutions like churches, libraries, charities, and communities in a positive, pro-active way as volunteers, members, contributors and leaders. These organizations are dying for good, caring people to help them!
We can vote and encourage others to vote for people who represent the best of us, not the worst.
When we disagree with others, we can listen first and try to understand WHY they feel like they do instead of thinking the worst of them. There’s nothing more gratifying than having a civilized discussion with someone with a different point of view.
Our country’s history is full of times when people turned on one another as enemies: The struggle against slavery and the Civil War. Jim Crow. The Gilded Age. The rise of Fascism. Civil rights struggles. The “War on Terror”.
It’s also full of examples when we’ve come back to each other, eventually, and worked to repair the damage. We are again at one of those points where we look around and wonder who is going to save us from ourselves.
Guess what? It’s us.