Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben, posits the theory that replacing our current national/global centralized economy that puts priorities on efficiency, cost and the individual with locally-created and locally-serving economies that focus on regional specificity, quality and communities is a healthier, more financially sustainable option that provides a higher quality and standard of living and is far more ecologically sound.
A large part of the supporting information underlying the “improved quality and standard of life” aspects this theory are the discoveries that have been recently made showing that, above a certain point, increased income actually begins to provide diminishing returns of increased happiness to the point that eventually having more actually makes you less happy than having less (a non-intuitive and puzzling situation that, the author notes, a lot of us Americanos have managed to find ourselves in lately).
In correlation with that is the acknowledgment that we have become hyper-individualized as a nation, which is both expensive, isolating, alienating and unhappy-making to the point that we’ve become a nation of either solitary neurotic sickos or borderline sociopathic, solitary it’s-all-about-me freaks.
As anyone who’s followed the health news in the last decade or so will remember, being chronically unhappy is both unfortunate for its own sake, in terms of quality of life, but compounds that misfortune by being bad for your health – which is neither particularly pleasant nor financially sustainable. Driving home this point, McKibben points out that while gross domestic product per capita has tripled since the 50’s, a 2000 report found that the average normal child in that year suffered from more anxiety than a child under psychiatric care in the 1950’s. Yeah, our baseline “normal” is the 1950’s “It’s time to move him to the advanced wing, Nurse Diesel.”
The significance to Americorps is this: According to studies McKibben sites, “…money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and that after that point the correlation disappears.” The main reason for this is that below that amount, you’re not meeting basic needs. But above that, adding more “stuff” to our lives increasingly adds more stress as we have to work harder to earn more to keep up both with what we already have (storage sheds for holding excess stuff are an uniquely American concept) to maintaining our position in the Jones Family Treadmill of Social Equivilency. Plus, clutter and over-accumulation lead to negative effects such as emotional energy drain (having to deal with and work around all that stuff), health issues associated with dust accumulation and related concerns, increased costs maintaining, replacing and using the stuff (with it’s often disposable/replaceable/upgradable components required for usage, such as coffee filters, digital storage devices, ink cartridge refills, tune-ups, built-in obsolescence, etc.).
On top of that, medical studies show that, “…joining a club or society of some kind halves the risk that you will die in the next year.” (Emphasis his.) Studies undertaken by Carnegie Mellon showed that among subjects given a virally-loaded nose-spray, “those with rich social networks were four times less likely to come down with illness than those with fewer friends.” He goes on to site results that correlate strong social networks with everything from lowered rates of dementia to improved coronary health.
As McKibben points out, “Why do people so often look back on their college days as the best years of their lives? Usually, it’s not because their classes were so fascinating. More important is the fact that they lived more closely and intensely in a community than ever before or since (college is the four years in an American life when we live roughly as we’ve evolved to live).”
Finally, McKibben points to studies showing that,among community-oriented activities, volunteering actually produced, “the highest levels of joy, exceeded only by dancing.”
Taken together, those studies point to the fact that spending a year in Americorps is one of the best things you can do to improve your health, happiness and quality of life.
For starters, the Americorps stipend, at $10,900 annually before taxes, virtually teeters on the “break-even” rate for the happiness/money ratio. Any less, and you’d start to lose happiness because you couldn’t meet basic needs. Any more, and you’d start down the unhappiness hill of snowballing Affluenza.
As a caveat, I imagine there’s a bit of “relative wealth” fudge room in there to account for standards of living, but I also imagine that this was averaged into the final scientific results. So, barring living in downtown Manhattan or something, getting by on an Americorps stipend provides everything you need to create a base level of happiness – enough for a small apartment (or maybe a house shared by a group of friends – double bonus), cheap transportation (a small car, a bike, public transport, walking), a cheap, veggie-centered diet (and hey, you’ll probably qualify for food stamps, as well, so there’s that), plus enough left over for a few cheap luxuries like the occasional movie or pizza party.
Secondly, most (but not all) Americorps positions are part of an extended team. In this last position, our team was 17 members strong. Orientation is designed to take that group of disparate individuals and turn them into, if not fast friends, at least a solidly bonded and functioning team with a common goal. In most cases, you wind up with both. This creates the social-bonding infrastructure that both improves your resistance to illness as well as bolstering your immune system and your general well-being. Plus you get health insurance, which is always nice.
And thirdly, when you join Americorps you are signing up to spend an entire year doing nothing but volunteer work. Yeah, you get a stipend but it’s still essentially volunteering, and either way the end result is that you spend a year building a community, meeting and getting involved with people and helping them, which is the crux of the issue.
Based on these findings, the position of Americorps member seems almost scientifically calibrated to increase your happiness, your quality of life and your health. Add to that the fact that you will be almost certainly extending your circle of friends and acquaintances in ways that increase your overall community togetherness quotient, meeting the people and getting the experiences you will need to improve your chances for success later in life and getting exposed to people and situations that are far worse off than you (proven to be a great perspective shifter and mental health booster for those inclined to whine about such life-ending disasters as iPod malfunctions and inconvenient restaurant hours), and you have what amounts to the best possible option you can take for creating a better life.
So, join Americorps now and come on in! Not only is the water fine, it’s beneficial properties stick with you long after you leave the pool.