Learning our Lesson

Springtime! In Nature's eternal cycle it heralds newness, opportunity, discovery as we unlayer clothes to reveal those most vulnerable areas, the arms, the lily white legs, and the winter rolls.

The last 12 months has proven to be one of the toughest years for most households. After a couple of months of uncertainty, the media has consolidated around reporting this as an ordinary recession, though more severe than most.

Toughest and most challenging of all, we have been forced to change habits and change our ways - re-establish and align new values, economic, societal and spiritual. Each and every one of us has been touched, whether through failed family structures or businesses, extra stress from financial uncertainty or through compromised health.

Each and every one of us can look within and find the light that gives direction to the new path to be discovered. As we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get ready to start all over again, will we have learnt from our lessons and rediscovered core values?

Can we envision a world with a better balance between production and consumption and between exploitation and protection of the environment?

Fundamentally, people change only a little bit, and only very slowly. People may be a little less willing to buy flat screen TVs on credit, but they will still aspire to own flat screen TVs.

As for the environment, can we, the human race, pull it together in time to meaningfully slow down global warming, and can we see reason to invest in alternative energy when there are so many arguments for investment in so many other troubled sectors?

As the recession has tightened, spending practices have favoured the types of products that are most important to consumers, for example food, health, beauty and cleaning products. Or rather, those products that we put in or around our bodies on a daily basis, that nurture us and improve our quality of life on a baseline level. This offers new opportunities and new markets for eco friendly products and one of the reasons the organic market is booming.

The need to have the latest, greatest things is out. According to a recent survey I've read, 67 per cent of respondents agreed it was important to buy products with social and environmental benefits, and over half (51 per cent) agreed they were willing to pay more for products with social and environmental benefits.

So the recession hasn't been all doom and gloom - it has just heralded a "profound reset moment in our lives". There are silver linings and new glimpses of light from this crisis - we just need to open our eyes to the treasures we already have and future possibilities. Good things happen to us every day and we just need to take the time to acknowledge them.

As your environment changes, for example, by having less income, value systems also shift. The trend for people to want to feel more secure means they may be less willing to take on debt, which means less stress, more time at home with the family and perhaps happier family structures.

At a time when we are becoming poorer (although in relative terms, we Australians are still far better off than almost anywhere else in the world), there are already signs of more volunteering for community service projects, more time spent with family, more cooperation within families and less concern with material goods.

The fallout of the current economic crisis has hurt our pockets, but it may be a godsend to your health and quality of life if you have been running on the adrenalin treadmill.

For the crisis to have hurt so many indicates that, as a society, we were running too fast, too long and aspiring to a lifestyle that was destined to explode. Fast food, fast cars, bigger, better, best ... all lead to inevitable health impacts like spiralling obesity, hypertension and a population faced with a looming mental health crisis.

"The fundamental nature of medical risk has changed over the past 20 to 30 years - shifting away from random, infrequent, and catastrophic events driven by accidents, genetic predisposition, or contagious disease and toward behaviour - and lifestyle - induced chronic conditions. Treating them now costs more than treating the more random, catastrophic events. What's more, the number of people afflicted by chronic conditions continues to grow at an alarming rate."

This quote from the McKinsey Quarterly ought to send a wake up call to everyone who has something to do with the healthcare industry.

If we are to really control health costs in this country, we need to get away from the mentality that the drug industry will develop a pill to help overcome our weaknesses and we need to get back into shape and lose weight and regain control over our lives. The recession, and the change in lifestyle values that have come with it, may well provide the catalyst for change that the healthcare industry so dearly needs.

Given that there is concern the global financial crisis still has some way to go, it is inevitable it will continue to have a damaging impact on the health and wellbeing of many people experiencing this crisis firsthand. So it is even more important to support one another and take the time to do those little things that bring light to a somewhat gloomy situation.

When people are faced with a crisis or loss, it's not unusual for them to turn to habits such as smoking, or having the extra nip or two of alcohol. Financial stress has been associated with behaviour proven to increase heart disease risk. Smokers, for example, are 13 per cent less likely to quit during economic hard times, and ex-smokers are more likely to relapse. Drinkers tend to drink more, which drives up blood pressure, and alcoholics who have quit drinking are more prone to relapse when exposed to chronic stress. People also eat less heart-healthy foods during times of stress, such as more sweets and carbohydrates, increasing their risk of obesity and associated health risks.

A friend of mine recently lost everything at the mercy of the financial crisis, marriage, house, car.... yet she is the happiest I have seen her in years. She is growing her own veggies, cooking healthy meals and walking her children to school. So irony lies behind the doom and gloom. When everything else in your life seems out of control, realigning your self with the basic structural fundamentals of living can bring happiness, health and fulfilment.

For many, recession or no recession, everyday life has been a struggle for years. The single parent scraping by, the elderly neighbour who rarely ventures out and sits in darkness day after day, the disabled and their carers who struggle each day to get by, but they do. So it's important to keep everything in perspective. Perhaps it's good that we have all felt a little hardship and perhaps now we will be more willing to reach out a hand to those who need a little help.

Of course, I'm not advocating that we should all have a sea change and live on lentils, but we do need to take some time out to breathe a little more and enjoy those gifts we have at hand. It's been an all too familiar story - parents who don't see their children because they are too busy working to pay off the mortgage or school fees; children who hardly get to enjoy their homes because they are too busy with extra curricular activities to be the best at everything they do.

To me, the best part of the recession or global economic crisis or slowdown or whatever we want to label it, is that people are becoming more focused on family values, and have started doing that strange thing called ... cooking! Sharing a family meal together at the table, embracing conversation, laughing together and sharing stories.

This is a time when we can come closer together to strengthen friendships and hey, if you've been laid off work now's the perfect opportunity to embrace something new, and do something that you've always wanted to do. Reach out and warm someone's heart, make a cake and invite some friends around, visit your family or pop in on someone you know may be needing some conversation and companionship.

We often say, "I wish I had more time." Now that we have it, let's put it to good use and eat more cake!