The Long, Shorter Path

We’ve heard it all before:

  • No pain, no gain.
  • Adversity builds character.
  • It’s the journey, not the destination.

We believe these well-heeled aphorisms. But let’s be honest: we don’t like them. And even though we recognize them as true, they often have little effect on our behavior.

So I hope you’ll forgive me if I propose a new adage based on a recent study: Depression is good for you.

No, not that kind of depression. Economic depression – as in the Great Depression.

After studying economic downturns since the 1970s, researchers at McGill University discovered that mortality rates actually decreased during periods of unemployment. In other words, as times got harder, people lived longer.

These findings gave rise to all kinds of theories. Maybe people had less money to indulge in unhealthy habits like drinking and smoking. Maybe their diets improved with home-cooked meals because they couldn’t afford to eat out. Maybe with less money to buy gasoline, people drove their cars less and therefore got into fewer traffic accidents.

But the study revealed a peculiar detail. It wasn’t just out-of-work people who lived longer. Life expectancy went up among even among people who had jobs if they lived in areas of higher unemployment.

The underlying reason behind the correlation remains an open question. But here are a couple of possibilities:

Perhaps when jobs are scarce, people are more grateful for the jobs they have. This means they complain less about their work, which makes them feel less stressed from working.

It might also be that people turn to one another more in times of need. A general atmosphere of desperation makes people become more sensitive to the circumstances of those around them. This incites communities to action and creates a stronger communal bond. People who need care are more likely to get it, and caregivers themselves benefit from the psychological and emotional rewards of giving.

We certainly don’t want to wish for troubled times. But it’s worth pondering the degree to which we might all be victims of our collective prosperity.

History supports this assumption. Political divisions within the ancient Persian Empire hastened its fall by leaving it vulnerable to the armies of Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death, his generals divided up his empire, making it easier for the Roman Empire to gobble them up a couple of centuries later. The complacency that resulted from wealth and power undermined the foundations that made those kingdoms wealthy and powerful.

Rome as well accelerated its own collapse, overextending its territories in a fruitless attempt to sustain the lavish lifestyle of its nobility while placating its citizens with bread and circuses. And more than a few modern observers have noted the similarities between the excesses and indulgences of Rome and the culture of immediate gratification that characterizes Western society today.

King Solomon says, Better a poor man who walks in his innocence than a wealthy man who travels a crooked, double path.

When we feel dependent on one another, we turn toward each other for support, pooling our resources and our efforts, extending our hands, and protecting one another’s interests. Knowing that we don’t have enough to care for ourselves forces us to see others as allies, partners, and benefactors.

But when people feel they have enough, they grow wary of all around them, withdraw into themselves and hide behind literal and figurative walls. They suspect others of plotting to take what is theirs, and they become so worried about protecting their wealth that they often fail to enjoy it. Worst of all, they deprive themselves of the satisfaction that comes from sharing their good fortune with their neighbors.

The path that leads through obstacles is long and hard. But it is often the one that brings us securely to our desired destination. As much as we may wish for a safe passage, stormy seas are what make us most appreciative when we arrive at a safe harbor.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Suggestive hypothesis.
    However, I happened to read that it is difficult to establish a link between the economic crisis and levels of mortality and health. And this is because we live longer, but under stress and not infrequently we give up drugs and health services. In fact, general and specialist medical examinations increase (which can decrease mortality levels), but the latter increase more among those who have adequate economic resources, while the use of diagnostic tests decreases for the most disadvantaged groups of the population.
    I personally believe that widespread excessive well-being cannot fail to damage our health.

  2. Your timing with this piece, Yonason, couldn’t be better. It so resonated with me. We are clearly in a reset period, but I keep wondering if this will actually change things or if, as soon as there’s a vaccine and things normalize to some degree, will we continue down the path of our own destruction? I guess only time will tell. I’m grateful for your words that always make me think. I find them to be deeply nourishing.

  3. Love this article and line When we feel dependent on one another, we turn toward each other for support. We saw that in the United States after 9/11 and I see it in my personal life whenever a loved one is in crisis. The hard times show us who we can depend upon. We rally to support each other. I cherish these people.