Finding happiness with less

It is a nice thing to stumble upon an upside of the economic downturn, seeing something that offers a new way to look at things instead of just sighing deeply at all the boarded-up storefronts and the even more painful reminders of an economy gone sour.

In the end, it turns out, people may be happier with less.

This is the theory put forth in a New York Times story this week, based on people who have found greater happiness in downsized lives and market researchers trying to make sense of consumers consuming so much less.

It is not exactly a new concept. There are Web sites like Zen Habits based on a simpler-is-better theme. The 100 Things Challenge by blogger Dave Bruno started several years ago and gained enough steam for Time magazine to write about the idea of living with only 100 things in 2008. A major point of Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” is that money makes you happy only up to the point where it provides your basic needs and after that, not so much.

But the Times story seems to give the idea some traction in mainstream consciousness, which is not a bad place for it to be. The consumption-crazed society we lived in before the bust was maddening in many ways, perhaps most of all because our entire economy was based on people spending wildly. Our culture’s perspective on what was important was thrown out of whack: status was determined by material possessions, saving money ran counter to the economy’s need for us to spend all our discretionary income, frugality was considered something that went out of style with our grandparents’ generation.

Yoga often served as a refuge from all that, so it is logical that yoga has thrived in the economic downturn, even though yoga caught a good deal of consumption fever along the way with people buying $98 yoga pants without blinking, along with other excesses.

What you start to understand, though, when immersed in a yoga practice like Bikram is how little any of that matters. When you are struggling through a posture, steering every ounce of concentration and effort into improving yourself, sweating, working to find stillness and peace in the most agonizing moments, it does not matter how pretty your shorts are or how much you paid for your mat. The answers are all inside you, to be found free for the price of great effort, physical and mental.

That is no less true outside the yoga room. And it seems to have taken an unfathomable economic crisis to spread that idea around.

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