On the Eve of the NH Primary Election, PBS Shoots Video About Main Street, Nashua NH

January 6, 2012:

Co-producers John Larson and William Brangham made a brief documentary in Nashua about the impact of the economic recession.  Entitled, Help Wanted: New Hampshire, it aired nationally on PBS, on the eve of the NH Presidential Primary.  It is an installment of the weekly PBS program, Need to Know:

Watch Fri., Jan. 6, 2011 on PBS. See more from Need to Know.

I was glad to get my thirty seconds as "the marriage counselor" in this engaging video shot on the Main Street where I head to work each day.  I've looked out that window onto Main Street, Nashua, NH for twelve years, and worked locally for twenty-five:  that's how many recessions?

Frankly, I would argue that "the recession" was the one which occurred in the 1989-1990 time frame, and that's when so much changed, never to fully "recover" in the sense that many of us would wish.  When I saw counseling clients during that recession circa 1990, they were long time employees laid off from major companies where they'd worked for decades, and often where a parent worked for decades as well.  They were devastated financially, but especially wrought with feelings of betrayal.  Those companies in which they'd worked their way up, those companies which had seemed to invest in them and their families to keep them for the long term (and fund their retirement thereafter) were cutting them loose based on numbers and organizational charts at headquarters far away.  "How could they do this to me?" was what I heard day after day.

These folks were heading into the new era, and handed the new lexicon of buzz words that were to be their hope for the future:  "Network ... Keep your skill set up to date along with your resume ... Go to the outplacement service, see the headhunters, attend support and networking groups ... log onto Monsterboard..."  Everyone was to be a free agent now, looking out for him or her self, not expecting long term employment (That actually would look like a negative on your resume!). 

And the stock market recovered.  Or did it?  And the recession ended.  Or did it?  It seems to me that we entered an era where corporations increasingly lived quarter-to-quarter -- or even more tempestuously, as news of the quarter presaged the quarter's end.  The stock market has risen and declined, but always seems to be on a razor's edge, susceptible to so many forces (international, political, psychological) and fluctuating as much from the superficial factors as the fundamental ones.  It's a short-term world.

I'm a psychologist and marriage counselor, not an economist or politician.  What hits home in the therapy room, I believe, is that we are living longer term lives in a shorter term world.  And this is very stressful.  I believe that individuals, couples and families need always to feel that they're "getting somewhere," "making progress," "have something to show for the year," "are further ahead this year than last year" ... That we are "getting somewhere," not just getting older (and approaching whole new sets of worries!)  The sense of forward movement seems very important.  Without forward movement, we feel more buffeted by all the daily problems and pressures.  In a quarter-to-quarter short term world, this seems increasingly difficult. Psychologists always talk about the influence of our pasts.  I think it's important to see that we are pulled toward the future ... and when the picture of the future is fuzzy and uncertain, anxiety and depression increase.  We need to feel an "internal locus of control," "self-efficacy" ... Call it what you will, it's the belief that our efforts, our work, our determination, will lead to the goals we want in life.  What is the opposite?  It's that the rewards in our life are not under our control, but under the control of luck, chance, and powerful others  (And folks point to a gridlocked political system, corporate greed, shortsighted profit-taking over longer term "values," and so on).  Maybe if folks feel little control over their future, we can understand why they might just run-up their credit cards, buy lavish items they can't afford, head out on vacations using their home equity, and care less about their weight and nutrition ... The future is NOT where it's at.  Spend!  (Hey, we are told that spending is what's needed to invigorate the economy!)

In doing marriage counseling, I believe that couples need to have their dreams for their future.  They need to be able to share those dreams by talking about them, exploring them and dreaming them together ... It's part of that pull toward the future.  When we have the degree of uncertainty about the future which we now face, it seems that the pull of the dreams is lost.  More than lost, it can cue feelings of powerlessness and despair. Talking about "what we hope to do in retirement," "selling our house and moving to the lake," and "sending our children to top notch colleges" now raise our blood pressure rather than give us pleasure, and they come between husbands and wives rather than bring them together. So we are more likely to avoid those conversations about future hopes and plans.  The sharing of the dreams is too often replaced with the sharing of the tensions of the day.  Couples come to counseling increasingly bickering about the daily minutia as they don't feel they are "getting anywhere."

I've noticed the psychological research of eminent psychologist Carol Dweck, at Stanford.  She asks the question, "Is there such a thing as will power?"  Her research, in short, indicates that there is will power for people who believe in it!   This sounds a lot like the "internal locus of control" and "sense of self-efficacy" of which I spoke earlier.  How do we restore it, for more people more of the time?  How do we restore the belief that we can achieve what we want in life through our self-determination and hard work?  We need to find ways to take that back. 

With my clients I share the sentiment that, amidst all of this, we need to find ways to give meaning and purpose to our lives, and to have that sense of forward movement even if it's not with money-linked-goals.  If there is a silver lining in these financially challenging and always changing times, it's that it requires us to think about things differently.  Even in discussing this challenge, I feel some camaraderie with others who know what I mean, and that's a start (like people bonding in hard times) ... And I try to remind myself that psychological studies of happiness show us that it's our relationships with others, our daily experiences and engagement in life that brings happiness.