Lean times, scanty employment and a sluggish economy may bring out the best in us.
So says Christopher Ruhm, an economist with the University of North Carolina who pored over 14 years’ worth of unemployment and medical statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.
Mr. Ruhm found that tough times prompt healthier behavior.
“Clearly, the key finding is that when times are bad, people tend to have healthier lifestyles,” Mr. Ruhm said yesterday. “They are less obese, less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise.”
The call of cigarettes, potato chips and the Barcalounger may not be quite as loud as once thought.
The painstaking investigation can be boiled down to some excruciating details.
After studying 1.5 million responses in the original CDC statistics, Mr. Ruhm found that every time the unemployment rate went up by one percentage point, the obesity, smoking and physical inactivity rates dropped by 0.3, 0.6 and 1.8 percent, respectively. The death rate fell by 0.5 percent.
The findings, and Mr. Ruhm’s conclusions about them, are not typical.
Research since the mid-1930s has traditionally treated unemployment and financial distress as a negative experience on par with divorce or serious illness. Studies said the jobless were more prone to heart attacks, suicide, mental breakdowns, depression, low self-esteem and domestic violence.
Mr. Ruhm has extrapolated something new from the CDC numbers: When unemployed, we tend to smoke less, eat less and exercise more.
In fact, the heaviest smokers and the most overweight people tended to alter their lifestyles the most, the research showed.
“We need to be careful when generalizing about bad times,” Mr. Ruhm said. “There’s a tendency to say that everything about those times is bad as well. We can’t always assume that.”
Jobless people clean up their act for a variety of reasons.
It can be “less costly to undertake health-producing activities such as exercise or the consumption of a healthy diet,” Mr. Ruhm wrote in his research, which was published last month by the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research.
The loss of a stressful job could also decrease “‘self-medication’ through smoking and drinking,” Mr. Ruhm wrote.
And of course, the unemployed simply have more time on their hands to, say, take that jog or forgo fatty fast food for sensible homemade fare.
“This research should underscore awareness that the way we act and behave influences our health,” Mr. Ruhm said.
Such thinking is a part of the advice psychologists give to the unemployed.
One Iowa State University guide counseled the jobless to “emphasize whole grains, vegetables and fruits” and to take a 20-minute walk five times a week.
“One of the most important characteristics of resilient families who cope well with unemployment is the meaning they attach to the unemployment. … The more positive the meaning, the better people adapt to change,” stated a guide from Colorado State University.
It quoted one woman who redefined her life when she lost her job, saying, “I needed the push of a layoff to get started.”
Wrestling something positive from unemployment is a challenging business, but it could lead to a lean, thrifty culture, some say.
Los Angeles-based psychologist James Gottfursht says he believes thriftiness will become chic in the near future.
“Instead of conversations about spending, discussions might veer towards spending less money on dinners or vacations,” he told ABC last year. “Once people break free of the addiction to money, they realize that they really didn’t need it so much.”