McMansions and SUVs didn't make our lives better. Losing them just might.
Psychologists and other social scientists (most economists excepted) have learned a lot in the last few decades about what makes us happy. They have taught us that, in affluent societies, money doesn't buy as much happiness as people think. Indeed, for people living above subsistence, it may buy very little.
They have also taught us what affects well-being more than money: close relations with family, friends, and community; meaningful work; security (financial, job, and health); and democracy.
Before the financial crisis, nothing was stopping us from pursuing these things that make life worth living. But, consistent with a substantial body of research showing that we generally don’t know what's good for us, when the money was flowing we substituted risk for security. We sacrificed time with friends and family to spend more time at work accumulating wealth and more time after work figuring out how to spend it. The short-term temptations were just too hard to resist.
But now, everyone's belt has tightened. Financial necessity may give us the opportunity to discover that time spent with loved ones is much more satisfying than time spent with your 76-inch HDTV. Once the crisis lifts, we may not be tempted to go back to living the way we did before, if that's even an option for those millions who are now losing their jobs, homes, and retirement accounts.
If this silver lining does appear, it may bring another benefit in its wake. It might change the way society and policymakers assess well-being. It may become apparent that equating social welfare with GDP is not just inadequate, but more importantly, misleading. It might lead us to develop a gross national well-being measure that will supplement, or even replace, GDP as our principal yardstick of social welfare and social progress. Then, maybe we'll discover that we were never so well off in the first place.