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Belt tightening might be good for us

I was talking with a friend the other day who was lamenting the sad downturn of the economy — which, she said, seems to follow the greediness and selfishness of society in general.

Then she said something that made me stop and think. “All of this is probably a good thing because it’s teaching us values some of us have forgotten. It’s bringing us back in line.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I agree. The effects all the financial tightening has had on most of us prove it.

People are staying at home more, eating dinner together. People have rediscovered the board games of their childhood. Some have turned to walking or riding their bikes as their main transportation. Camping out has become fashionable along with thrift stores, second-hand clothes and library books.

Bartering also has become en vogue. My husband and I have been sharing our backyard oranges with one of his co-workers who has a grapefruit tree. A local Web designer is lending his help to a new business owner in exchange for some marketing advice.

All of this is gradually creeping into our social consciousness and our language. At a recent Beall’s fashion event, someone proclaimed “frugality is the new black” of the fashion world.

And it isn’t just the middle class that’s changing its tune. I’ve seen several examples including a story about a New York socialite who spent the day shopping, only to return everything the next day in a feeling of remorse and repentence.

“It just didn’t feel right considering the way everything is going these days,” she said.

Wow, a shopaholic with a conscience.

But will this temporary change in our ways be a lasting break of old bad habits? A switch from the overindulgent consumerism many of us seemed to revel in, to more spartan and often healthier ways?

Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, says people who have attempted to live self-sufficiently and frugally are focused on plain living and high thinking. That was the case in the Depression and World War II, and with certain subcultures like the Puritans and the hippies.

I recently spent my birthday in the small North Florida town of Micanopy, population 653. This is a big change from my usual extravagant out-of-state birthday celebrations, so when I suggested it, my husband thought I was a little crazy.

But the appeal was the thought of going back to basics, eliminating the stress and turmoil all around us today and slipping back in time. In fact, the town’s unofficial motto is “The Town Time Forgot.”

Kasser says it remains to be seen whether the changes going on in society today are just temporary behaviorial shifts or whether they will translate into a collective shift in values.

“We know from research and experience that feelings of insecurity get more focused on money,” he said. “People become more materialistic and less generous.”

A value shift occurs when people, when going through traumatic times, reflect on that trauma and realize they need a new value system, Kasser says.

So whether eating dinner at home with the family more often will mean a deeper appreciation of family all depends on how people internalize the event. Will people stop to consider that the changes they have made may have started because they had less money, but really became change agents that showed them a way back to a better way to live? Or will they rush right back to their favorite restaurant when money starts flowing again, giving up that pizza at home with the kids?

“This is an opportunity to look at what is more meaningful in life and whether all that was really satisfying for me,” Kasser said. Considering the U.S. is often described as a materialistic, consumer-oriented society, it might be optimistic to expect a value change.

But I’m hoping my trip back to Micanopy was more about believing that doing things with my husband on my birthday is the most important thing about celebrating it.

I hope we can look for a deeper meaning behind our actions and break those bad habits.