Why the economic recession hasn't brought emotional recession


WE ARE A resilient lot, we Irish. The psychological term resilience is used to describe the ability of an individual or group to cope positively with stress and adversity. In other words, it is that capacity to bounce back from life’s trials that we often admire, even envy, in others. Entire countries can demonstrate resilience: think of the fortitude of the Japanese people after the recent earthquake and tsunami.

Likewise I would argue that the Irish have been resilient these past few years, through the depths of our recession. Don’t get me wrong: everyone in Ireland has been affected by the collapse of the economy. But our economic recession has not been accompanied by an emotional recession – and our capacity for resilience is a key reason why I believe we will have a stronger recovery than most economic forecasters expect.

Where is the evidence for this assertion? My company, Amárach Research, has tracked the emotional well-being of the nation over the past two years, from the very trough of the recession. Every month we have asked a representative sample of 1,000 Irish adults about their mood and the personal impact of the recession on their lives. One of our questions is about the emotions or feelings people have a lot each day. What do you think the dominant emotions for most of us have been since early 2009? Would you have guessed enjoyment and happiness? Probably not. Yet right through the recession most Irish people have reported that enjoyment, followed closely by happiness, are the two feelings they have the most on any given day – about 50-60 per cent of all adults on average in our surveys. That’s one measure of resilience.

We have been on an emotional roller coaster over the past few years. So, unsurprisingly, the two next most common emotions are stress and worry. Typically, we have found that 40-45 per cent of all adults experience both emotions a lot on any given day. We may also have the answer to the question asked by many visitors: why aren’t we angrier about what’s going on? It appears we don’t do anger in Ireland. It is our least common emotion, according to our tracking research. Typically only 15 per cent of adults experience it a lot on an average day – far less than experience, say, sadness or anxiety.

Curiously, there was only one period during our tracking study when more people experienced stress and worry than enjoyment and happiness. And that was in November last year, at the time of the IMF-EU bailout. But since then our emotional league table has returned to normal. Yet another indicator of the resilience of the Irish people.

Ireland is now in its fourth year of recession – longer than in any other country in the EU or OECD. We have all witnessed its consequences in terms of unemployment, emigration and indebtedness. But this has not been an equal-opportunity recession.

Take the issue of whom it has most affected. Every month we ask people whether they agree that “right now the recession is affecting other people more than it is affecting me”. Back when we started asking this question nearly six in 10 people agreed that, yes, it appeared to be affecting others more than themselves. That percentage has fallen as the recession has deepened. But even now almost half of those we survey still feel that the recession is affecting others more. Furthermore, nearly four in 10 of us feel “financially comfortable enough to make it through the recession”, even if only one in four now expect that “Ireland will be through the worst of the recession in 12 months’ time”. There appears to be a certain grim determination on the part of nearly half of us to get through the recession whatever it takes. Another sign of resilience.

Who are these people? Age and life stage are important factors. Those under 25 and those over 55 in our research tend to be more emotionally insulated from the recession than others. Indeed, it is Ireland’s 45- to 55-year-olds who appear to be bearing the brunt of the emotional recession alongside that of the economic one. For example, 51 per cent of 45-55s worry a lot, compared with just 37 per cent of all adults in our most recent survey, and only 38 per cent of 45-55s agree the recession is affecting others more than themselves, the lowest level of any age group.

It also follows that recovery, when it comes (and all recessions end in recovery), will not be an equal-opportunity recovery. Attention is often paid to the sectors of the economy that will lead the recovery: exports, information technology, foreign direct investment and the like. But it might be wiser to look at which groups in our society are better placed to take the lead. In the final analysis it is the resilient who will lead the recovery. It is the people and communities with the right combination of optimism, fortitude and confidence who will take the lead. Luckily we have quite a few people like that, in every walk of life. One indicator: every month we ask whether people agree that “I am optimistic in spite of the current economic situation”. And on average, every month, about half of all the people we survey say they are optimistic. Nor is it just the young and the retired who hold this view: currently the highest level of optimism is among 25- to 34-year-olds. Which is just as well, as they are the ones leading Ireland’s baby boom.

There is an important message here for the Government and for opinion leaders in general. And that is that we should use our in-built capacity for resilience to get us on the path to recovery sooner rather than later. The UK government has instructed its equivalent of the Central Statistics Office to start measuring and reporting the happiness and well-being of the British people. This isn’t just a fanciful notion on its part, nor an attempt to distract people from the “real” issues. Rather it has grasped the importance of psychology in shaping people’s behaviour as citizens, consumers, parents, employees and employers. Furthermore, there is the growing realisation that one cannot have an economic recovery unless there is a psychological recovery.

Therein lies the opportunity: for government, businesses and communities to play their part in bringing about a return to economic growth and job creation. Resilience isn’t just the capacity to bounce back. Resilience is the capacity to bounce forwards into purpose and success. The message from our research is that the Irish people are both resilient and ready for recovery.

Gerard O’Neill is chairman of Amárach Research