March 17, 2005
Three years ago, Robert Atkinson stepped off the conveyor belt of modern American life. He and his wife, Laura, and two daughters bought a modest 1,200-squarefoot home in Tempe near Arizona State University.
The mortgage fit well in their budget, and the house was close to the campus where Atkinson and his wife work, which eliminated commuting time and stress. Instead of two SUVs, the family downsized to gas-saving compacts.
They’re no longer worried about being stressed over time or money.
"I have contentment for the first time. On a daily basis, I am thankful for my life," says Atkinson, 35, an assistant professor of educational technology. "We (as a family) are not anxious."
Many Americans work longer hours, or at multiple jobs, and see their quality family time declining. And many are searching for the perfect balance between life and work.
"Laura and I reflected on what made us happy," Atkinson says of a conversation he had with his wife before they moved to the East Valley from Starkville, Miss., where he was an assistant professor of educational psychology. That conversation was sparked by "Affluenza," a book by John DeGraaf, who also heads the Take Back Your Time campaign. DeGraaf sees much of today’s life imbalance as a result of a pursuit of the American dream.
An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness — not happiness — is the outcome of that pursuit, DeGraaf says.
Most days the Atkinson family eats breakfast and dinner together — sometimes lunch, too, because the children’s school is nearby. They spend evenings walking or biking the neighborhood. Four days a week, Atkinson rides his bike to work, cycling with colleague Doug Clark, who moved to the Tempe neighborhood from Chandler after seeing the benefits of his friend’s lifestyle. With savings accounts a reality instead of a dream, the family looks forward to world travel when their girls are older.
"There are a lot of smart people (in the marketing industry) trying to make you think these are the things you need," Atkinson says. He once pondered getting some kind of toy — an all-terrain vehicle, boat, motorcycle or Jet Ski. At the same time, he was thinking of the second job he’d need to pay for it.
But now the family is vigilant about what they let into their lives.
Like a house, they know comfort has nothing to do with space.
WORK VERSUS LIFE
As a sociology student in the late 1960s, DeGraaf, a Seattle-based independent filmmaker, was looking forward to optimistic predictions of what the life of the American worker would be like in the year 2000. With technological advances on the horizon, 20-hour work weeks and 10 weeks of vacation would be the norm, according to social optimists. The biggest problem Americans would face at the turn of the century would be what to do with all the free time.
Things haven’t quite worked out as predicted. A variety of motivators at different socioeconomic levels have kept people working harder, longer and under more stress. "The rich get to keep more," DeGraaf says. "Middle-incomers see the bar of needs rising. And the poor are just trying to make ends meet."
The average American work week has increased from slightly more than 40 hours to slightly more than 50 hours in the past 25 years, according to Richard O’Connor, author of "Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness." In the same period, the amount of time left over for leisure has declined from more than 26 hours per week to fewer than 20.
DeGraaf believes this schedule is detrimental to personal health and has negative effects on the family and the health of the community. While Americans may be possession-rich, he says, they are timepoor, with little energy or opportunity to cultivate important bonds and ties. The result isn’t a happier work force, but a more stressed population.
A 2000 Gallup poll showed that while Americans were supposed to be recreating, 80 percent were feeling job stress. More than half of that number, or 42 percent, said they needed help managing stress.
Europeans successfully traded gains in production for leisure time. Americans, DeGraaf says, "work nine weeks more a year than our peers in Western Europe." The assumption here is that economic growth is essential to happiness. DeGraaf says that we are paying for that supposition in our family life, our community and our health.
MONEY DOESN’T BUY HAPPINESS
Alene Nitzky was never so miserable as when she was making good money. First as a college professor and then as a retail management trainee, Nitzky earned solid wages but worked excessive hours or found the conditions intolerable. Neither position allowed her the life she wanted.
I was doing what I was supposed to do, but I was miserable," says Nitzky, 41, of Fountain Hills.
For a time after leaving her teaching post at a small four-year college in Colorado, Nitzky baked bread. She welcomed the physical demands of the job andthe time for reflection. "I needed to do something completely different from academia," she says." It was during that period she figured out the life her workaholic father lived wasn’t for her.
"I wanted to garden. I wanted to have animals again. I wanted to learn to paint," she said.
She and her husband, Dennis, who worked full time in health care management, picked up and moved to Arizona, where housing was affordable and the economy was booming. For a while Nitzky found herself back in the work force, this time in retail. Again, the pay was good, but the hours were long and she could not abide the way employees were treated.
She quit her job and learned to paint. An endurance runner, she dabbled in personal training. Still, her life has not been stressfree. While the couple has managed to live on one income, there is little cushion, and now she’s back in school, training to become a nurse. She is hoping a part-time nursing position will alleviate some of the financial worry. From a lifestyle standpoint, the couple has no desire to lead a different life.
"We live in a community where the median income is $100,000," she says. "We live on half that." The Nitzkys do not have new cars or car payments. "We bought the smallest house (in Fountain Hills) so we wouldn’t be slaves to a mortgage." A futon serves as the living room couch. The sole TV is in the bedroom and is only used to play DVDs.
"My dad tells me I’m poor," says Nitzky, sipping a cup of steaming tea while relaxing below her artwork that hangs on the living room walls. "But I have everything I need. I have a rich life."